Companies struggle with some familiar burning questions when they consider the risks and rewards of engaging in use of social media. It’s seems that the world of online interaction has become a darker place over the last 12 months or so. Football sex scandals, libel suits, and aggressive and persistent trolls have all served to tarnish the once enthusiastic and open environment.
This can be intimidating for many companies. With the age of innocence seemingly at an end, the rewards of baring your company’s soul online can seem outweighed by the risks of it turning against you. So how can companies protect themselves online, and to determine what role, if any, PR should be taking in championing an online presence.
Sex, Trolls and Doubles Standards
At a recent event hosted by London financial PR agency Broadgate Mainland tantalisingly entitled ‘Sex, Trolls and Doubles Standards: Protecting your corporate reputation online’ Charlie Thomas, business writer for the Huffington Post UK, certainly felt the online audience had become more cynical and more willing to aggressively challenge both journalists and companies alike. As a result, corporate entities had to be willing to be more transparent, particularly since anything said online becomes part of a lingering online archive. Marketing and PR, she argued, needed to be more intelligent, and willing to be more available.
Jonathan Coad, a media lawyer with Lewis Silkin accustomed to challenging journalists surprised all by agreeing wholeheartedly. The power of the individual to have massive effect on a company by attacking it online has increased by leaps and bounds in the past 20 years. While events such as the Lord McAlpine scandal have provided stark evidence that online actions can indeed have consequences, companies are always going to be at the whim of individuals who are aggressively seeking to destabilise them online, and companies can’t rely on journalists to root out inevitable untruths and rumours.
Dr Mariann Hardey, lecturer in Marketing at Durham University Business School on the other hand, observed that companies only seem to get into trouble when they underestimate the power and permanence of social media. Companies are still sluggish to realise how vulnerable they leave themselves when they don’t adequately prepare for social media crises, as Nestlé’s Facebook debacle and the hacking of Burger King’s facebook feed have shown. Social media has become a 24-hour part of many people’s lives, companies needed a 24 hour solution in place to engage with it.
PR vs (Traditional) Online Marketing
So what role does modern PR have to play in this evolving landscape? It’s not so simple. Compared to conventional marketing, PR has always required a company to be willing to be more open and engaging with the public, and with that comes risks. The vast exposure that comes from committing to an online presence still gives many companies pause. But three people with very different outlooks came together and agreed that either you ensure you have systems in place to handle a more active and sometimes combative social media, or risk being caught out.
A journalist, a lawyer and a business school lecturer walk into a PR consultancy…
This gives me the chance to bring it all back to my grandfather’s standby ‘three people walk into a pub’ joke. What I now find so quaint about these gags is how odd it once seemed for three people from very different backgrounds to sharing a pint and a chat. (A priest, a rabbi and a football manager you say? How absurd!) But in the world of social media, people from all backgrounds with every opinion under the sun are constantly talking and debating, with all the conflict and comedy you would imagine. Companies may wish to stay well out of such a chaotic and occasionally irrational landscape, but if they do – they run the greater risk of becoming the butt of the joke.