A Forbes report from July 2012 highlighted an interesting divide in the use of social media among consumers and business leaders. The data showed that social media is more pervasive than ever among customers: 50% of the population use Facebook and 37% use Twitter, yet among 500 CEOs, only 7.6% are present on Facebook and 4% on Twitter.
Such numbers beg the question – are CEOs burying their heads in the sand when it comes to engaging with stakeholders on social media? Or is just a simple case that they are too busy? Perhaps, business leaders individually can do more to understand social media and put it to good use? Or maybe social media engagement should be within the remit of responsibilities of the communications function within an organisation? Regardless of the answers to the questions above, one thing is clear – while the digital world has presented new challenges for companies who want to manage their reputations, it also presents great opportunities, as long as those organisations have a strategy in place to combat the evolving landscapes in which they operate.
Empowerment of the digital stakeholder
Over the past few years, what the Internet has done is put businesses permanently in the spotlight by increasing consumer and stakeholder power. Stakeholders can now share their opinions and have their voices heard instantly, at the click of a button. This has led to many businesses deciding to take part in two-way conversations with their customers.
At the same time, being permanently in the spotlight can presents a challenge for companies that wish to maintain a good reputation. After all, it’s no good investing in ways to make sure that your own website appears at the very top of internet searches if the link immediately below is a tabloid story, or a forum discussing your company’s past unethical behaviour or wrongdoing. Company behaviour is increasingly being scrutinised, so managing an issue before it becomes a crisis is crucial to companies who understand the power that their digital legacy can have.
We can no longer erase the past
In the days before the Internet, news would appear in newspapers, on the radio, and on the television. Scandals and crises would be remembered only for as long as they were talked about in the press because there was no immediate “database” that the general public could use to “resurface” content, nor any outlet for it to be discussed in. These days, news can be instantly accessed via any search engine. For instance, I could rediscover every detail of a scandal that took place over 10 years ago in under 30 seconds.
I could then bring the issue alive again, writing a blog about it and inviting people to give their thoughts on it. In fact, when it comes to social media, I wouldn’t even have to write a blog. I could create a Facebook group or do a series of Tweets, reviving interest on any scandal in a matter of seconds, and invite all of my friends to lead the conversation on it.
This means that in a world where all you need to be a journalist is an internet connection, companies must have aligned strategies to communicate with all of their stakeholders. Reputation must be managed not just in the traditional media, but also in the court of public opinion and businesses that are successful at this usually have strong social and digital media strategies in place.
A strategic approach with clearly defined objectives
Given that negative news stories can undo much of a company’s hard work when it comes to reputation management, it is vital that organisations take a more strategic approach to public relations, focussing on quality of coverage rather than quantity. One quality, on-message, strategic piece of coverage will do far more to outweigh a negative one than a lot of articles with weak, unplanned mentions.
With so many powerful stakeholders out there ready to pounce on any corporate indecision or slip up, companies must play to their strengths, proactively engaging with the media on issues that they have strong opinions on, and that align to their corporate strategy. Given that negative coverage sticks around longer than ever before, companies must be decisive in their message and confident in what they are talking about.
With a disciplined and methodical approach, social media engagement can allow businesses to connect with key audiences in a more effective way. Afterall, all companies have a digital footprint, but only those that engage proactively and have aligned communications will manage to build strong and visible reputation capital online.