October 2013

AHA - Social MediaI recently had a conversation with an acquaintance that went something like this:

Him: “Hey Ruth, I was thinking about those hash mark thingies…”

Me: “Do you mean hashtags?”

Him: “Yeah, those things. Do you think it would be worth choosing one to put on our e-mail signature?”

Needless to say, we had a more in-depth conversation about hashtags. We also discussed developing a one-on-one social media workshop for him so that he could better understand social media from both a strategic and a tactical (tools and technology) viewpoint.

The challenge is that this person handles a component of communications at a senior level for a very high profile organization. He is one of a handful of people who provide guidance and advice to the CEO of this organization, including advice on social media. And he has been advocating for the use of Twitter and Facebook for a few months now.

Don’t get me wrong, the person who asked me about the “hash mark thingies” is very smart and highly successful in his field of expertise. However, he doesn’t understand social media and doesn’t realize how much he doesn’t know. That is an issue for his organization.

We get calls pretty regularly from senior people who want to know more about social media. Some of them want to meet privately and have a tutoring session; others want to include their senior team, their board or others in a social media workshop. I think that for those of us who are involved in the world of communications and PR, there is an assumption that everyone knows what we know. That just isn’t the case.

First off, the tools and technologies are ever evolving. It can be challenging to keep up. And, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Talking to your kids over dinner about Facebook or Twitter is not the same as having someone who understands your business goals and your communications objectives assist you in developing your social media strategy (as a part of your communications strategy). Social media is not a stand-alone or “stand-apart” component; it belongs in your overall communications plan.

The fact is – not every organization needs to be “active” on social media. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know what is going on in your industry or that you shouldn’t monitor what’s being said about your organization on social media. Both negative and positive conversations should be monitored. Developing your plan on how, what, when, where and why you will use social media is something that needs to be clearly defined and taken seriously.

Speak with your communications department, PR team or your consultant – or call us. We can help you define what you need when it comes to social media workshops or coaching.

Before you make any decisions about social media activities, make sure you understand the landscape relevant to your industry, the social media environment and what your risks and opportunities are – relative to your communications strategy.

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dreamstime_xs_31832574We recently had several discussions with clients and colleagues about the use and value of hashtags. For some professionals who aren’t regular users or participants in social media, there is a perception that a hashtag can be created and it’s then yours – that you kind of own it and have control over it. Nothing could be further from the truth. (If you aren’t quite sure what a hashtag is, please check out Wikipedia for a definition. And as a communicator, don’t assume that everyone knows what a hashtag is. It might be a common term in your world, but there are many who don’t know. And they might be afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid.)

While social media conversations and dialogue can be started, facilitated and participated in, any organization that believes that it can – for any length of time – control the dialogue is sadly mistaken (and really isn’t seeing the value of social media, in my opinion).

One of the interesting things to come out of advertising, marketing and even PR is the defined use of hashtags in campaigns. Many (usually larger) organizations use them in the hopes of driving social media users to help their hashtags trend and get their community to engage in positive sharing about their goods or services. That approach has some big risks involved. If it goes sideways, your hashtag no longer becomes a tool for positive communication; it can become a key facilitator for negative comments, humour at your expense and, at worst, attacks on your brand.

Hashtags are meant to allow people to easily find a topic, to bring people interested in a topic together organically, and to help organize and find the incredible amount of information out there on Twitter and Instagram. They aren’t meant as a promotional tool for your organization.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t use them in that way, but you do need to clearly identify the risks to this type of usage and have a plan in place in case your hashtag is hijacked. You can’t stop popular opinion (or in the case of Twitter – active opinion by a small, committed, influential and often really funny group of individuals). They could take what you thought was a brilliant promotional campaign and turn it into a mockery of your brand that then makes it onto The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. And that’s bad for your brand reputation.

I found a piece on Mashable that showcases some hashtag hijacks that have gone wrong (and one that went right as far as truth, justice and equality go). You can read it here. You have to admit, hashtag hijackers can be funny people.

We always go through a strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, threats (SWOT) review with clients if we are considering any kind of social media outreach. You can’t make assumptions that everyone is going to respond in the way you want them to/expect them to on social media. And it is always important to remember that you don’t own your hashtag, your Twitter feed, your Facebook page or other social networking sites. You might be the administrator who facilitates the discussion, but it’s the people who decide the tone and topic. Respect and appreciate that. Even if there are negative discussions, you can glean some valuable stakeholder/target market feedback. 

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who, what, when, where, whyThere are many social media platforms out there. I have seen some organizations attempt to use them all and the fact is, I have yet to see anyone accomplish that. Unless you have a huge communications team, a big fat budget and are all things to all people, it is strategic to identify the right platform or platforms for you and to limit them.

For our clients, we often review their social media platforms as a part of the planning process. Depending on the size of the client and the scope of our work with them, we make recommendations on changes and additions in this area.

We develop a great deal of content in a brand journalism style for our clients. The fact is, I believe communicators and public relations professionals have been using the brand journalism approach for decades – we just called it “content.” Today, we call it brand journalism and we use that content in a variety of ways, including on social media platforms. But before we do anything, we define where the organization’s stakeholders/community/audience hang out on social media platforms, we spend time understanding their needs, wants and expectations regarding interaction with brands and organizations (and often the world as a whole), and we develop a strategic editorial plan and schedule. And that plan and schedule is reviewed and revised on a regular basis as trends, interests and expectations shift.

I was fortunate to work with some incredibly talented editors and journalists back in my journalism career and they taught me a great deal more than how to write a good article. There is so much that goes into developing compelling content that speaks to the reader, listener or viewer. As much as each piece should be able to stand alone in its value, it’s also important to understand how all the pieces come together.

The content that is put forward in newspapers, magazines, in online publications and in broadcast news isn’t randomly pulled together. There’s a plan. As much as the media follows the news of the day/week/month, the content as a whole is strategically planned out with themes, context and flow. How pieces reflect on each other, what the sidebars attached to major news stories can communicate, how all of the images/visuals and articles/segments flow, what kind of follow-up or updates are expected, what time of year it is, whether the information will be important to people today, what the other seemingly unrelated events and news stories are, etc. All of these elements need to be taken into consideration when developing an editorial schedule/plan and when writing or producing the content.

It’s a thoughtful process and when it is done right, you can engage your community in meaningful and valuable ways. Not only is this approach important for which social media platforms you use, but also for the content you will share on them, including how often to share, what the themes are, the style and tone, how often you will self-promote (please, not often – it’s annoying and you will lose your community), what your level of engagement is, how much you will repurpose or repeat content from one platform to another, and – at the heart of it – what you have to say that matters to the people you want to connect with.

Working all of this out is one of the most interesting, exciting, challenging and rewarding parts of the work we do. When a client is committed to doing it right and puts in the effort, the results are often incredible. Their followers multiply, their web visits increase and they find themselves in authentic conversations with their key target markets, which – depending on their ultimate goal – drives sales, increases brand awareness, changes behaviours or perspectives, informs, educates and engages. But it all goes back to knowing who you want to connect with, why they would want to connect with you, where to connect and when.

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Candy CrushCandy Crush Saga is a popular online game played on Facebook and mobile devices (iPad, iPhone and Android). Players try to match three or more candies in order to gain points, remove obstacles and meet goals. Currently, the game developers state that the Facebook version has 485 levels and the smartphone version has 425, with new levels being regularly released. Players need to unlock levels as they play. To do so, they can ask friends to help, they can pay for more “turns,” or purchase assistance in the form of “boosters.”

As much fun as this game is (and it is fun), Candy Crush also provides some valuable PR lessons if you look past the little animated intros, flashy candy explosions, and the feeling of victory when you move up a level. Below are the top five PR lessons learned from Candy Crush.

You Need a Strategy Specific to Your Goal

In order to move up levels in Candy Crush, you have to develop a strategy that is specific to the level you are on. The obstacles and goals change at every level, and the strategy that worked on the last level might not work on the next one. Without a defined strategy, you’re just moving little pieces of animated candy around, hoping for a Candy Crush miracle. And don’t just try to do what you did successfully last time; a cookie cutter strategy doesn’t work in PR or on Candy Crush. In PR, it is crucial to identify and understand the specifics of your initiative, project, organization and culture – as well as the timing and external events that may impact it. You need to identify your goals relevant to those influences before defining a strategy. One size does not fit all.

Community is Crucial

In Candy Crush, you can ask friends for help – for additional lives, moves or to help you get to the next level. You can also respond to the requests from friends or you can help out of the blue and randomly send them lives and moves. In fact, Candy Crush makes it easy to be a part of a community. It asks you who you want to help. Now, if your approach is always to ask for help and never give it, eventually your Candy Crush pals are going to get tired of you and stop responding. Sound familiar in PR? Great PR is a two-way street – with your community, your stakeholders, media and bloggers, on social media networking sites, at events and tradeshows, with your colleagues… everywhere. If the only reason you connect is to ask for something, you will wear out your welcome pretty quickly. People will stop responding. No candy for you!

Money Talks, but it’s Not Always Authentic

On Candy Crush, it’s easy to purchase more lives, more moves and “booster” help (and it’s encouraged, since that’s how the game developer makes money). Sometimes, spending the money works; but if your only success comes from paying for it, at some point it loses its authenticity – in PR and on Candy Crush – and no amount of messaging or positioning makes it any different. I did a poll and no one I spoke with admits to spending money on Candy Crush.  In the world of public relations, we use a range of communications vehicles, including those we pay for such as advertorials, ads (including Facebook ads), promotional PR, brand journalism pieces, and partnerships/sponsorships – and they work. However, media relations, blogger relations, social networking conversations and discussions are key to authentically connecting with stakeholders – and heaven help you if you try to pay for that. The reason this type of coverage is successful is because it is earned, not bought. PR has evolved and today it definitely includes more elements that are created and paid for (which can be a great thing), but no matter what – great communication has to be authentic, transparent, engaging and informative if you want stakeholders to care. A blend is good, but don’t buy your way into everything; sometimes you just have to do the work necessary to earn it.

Don’t Share Too Much About How Great You Are

Lots of people who play Candy Crush allow the game to share their score on Facebook – if they achieve a high score, which friends they have just surpassed with their score, etc. It gets really annoying after a while. It’s too much. In public relations, if all you do is tell people how great you are and what a success you are, and your only communication is to show them how you think you have “passed” them in any given area, you lose any meaningful connection. Think before you brag about how great you are. Sharing a genuine success is one thing; populating your social media feeds with shameless (and usually empty) self-promotion doesn’t achieve anything. In fact, it could make people wonder who you are trying convince about how great you are.

It’s a Process

In Candy Crush, you get past one level and do a little happy dance and bam, the next level is right there to conquer. Did I mention there are more than 400 of those levels? That’s how we live our lives as PR professionals – and we love it. We celebrate the successes, review the lessons learned, and then turn our focus to the next challenge. It’s an ongoing process that we accept and embrace. It’s a never-ending need to move forward, to improve, to meet our goals and set higher ones, and to take our organization or clients to the next level. That’s what makes us leap out of bed in the morning ready to crush it!

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