Can you give me some insight into your views on how social media is changing the role of the professional communicator?
One of the myths of social media is that the role of the communicator is completely changed. I would argue that some dimensions of the communicator’s role have changed, and they are significant.
Other dimensions, though, continue just as they were. Social media is an addition to the business communication environment. It has NOT completely replaced the environment.
For example, media relations continues to be important. Despite assertions that the media are irrelevant, research continues to demonstrate a considerable amount of trust placed in local news media, both print and electronic. The behind-the-scenes work of communicators that is never visible to the general public – like negotiation with activist groups, in-depth audience research, relationship- and alliance-building with strategic constituents – will continue as before.
Now that we have the “in-addition-to-not-instead-of” argument out of the way, let’s talk about how the role of the communicator is changing thanks to social media. Or, perhaps I should say “should change,” since in many organizations, these new requirements for communications haven’t yet taken root.
The most significant change is the notion that communication is the crafting of one-way top-down messages. While there is still a role for some of that, communicators must equally be prepared to facilitate conversation. Some of the skills required include community identification, building, and moderation; one-to-one engagement and message monitoring.
Coordinating the organization’s social media efforts is another vital role for communicators, ensuring, for example, that employees all have accurate, timely information they can tap into when engaged in their own conversations with friends, families and online communities.
Such coordination also ensures a rogue business unit doesn’t do something inappropriate in the social media space that colors the reputation of the entire organization. Communicators also need to know what new channels are emerging and be ready to monitor them and communicating through them should the evidence suggest they have become important.
And communicators must be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of their efforts. While there are many points of view about the ability to measure social media, there is always a way to note how an effort has paid off, particularly if you knew what your goals were for that effort at the outset. Another communications industry issue is the continuing consolidation of traditional media.
How does this impact the professional communicator? I don’t see this as a new issue. Media have always gone through consolidation and change. Television was a new medium. The changes in the magazine industry of 25 years ago – from general publications like Life and Look, to specialized, niche publications, like Ferret World – also required communicators to rethink their approaches. Email – nearly 20 years in the business world – introduced new marketing opportunities (both good and awful).
But, how often do you see Burma Shave-like roadside promotions these days? Communications has always been about adaptation. Smart communicators have always watched the landscape to detect the shifts and tap into the channels to which audiences are paying attention. Anybody who keeps all their eggs in one basket (e.g., television) isn’t very good at his or her job. One reason marketers are embracing channels like YouTube and Twitter is that they recognize the declining influence of some traditional channels like newspaper and television advertising and the migration of attention from those media to newer ones. Concurrent with this, of course, is the need for communicators to embrace the practices that work in these new media.
Simply transferring the same messages to the new media – like running press releases through corporate blogs or trying to deliver marketing messages through Facebook – won’t work.
Solid professionals in the communication business know this intrinsically. Less professional communicators are surprised.
Simultaneous to all this, is the relentless emergence of social media people. Where do these new “reporters” fit into the world of corporate communications? As with everything else, citizen journalists represent challenges and opportunities. The challenges include not necessarily getting a heads-up that someone is reporting on you, and not necessarily getting called for fact-checking or comment on a story about you.
In short, citizen reporters don’t abide by a code of conduct that you could generally take for granted with "professional journalists," trained, to report through an hierarchy that includes seasoned editors, and getting paid for their work.
With major events, the number of reporting outlets will exceed any organization’s ability to manage its interactions as they have in the past. While all reporters have some degree of bias, citizen journalists often don’t even strive for objectivity.
Companies also need to watch for attacks on their brands. The recent viral blog displaying images of WalMart shoppers is a great example.
Consequently, companies must broaden their monitoring and find ways to communicate that potentially reach these individuals as well as their audiences.
However, if organizations see only the threat and not the benefits of citizen journalists, they’re missing huge opportunities to tell their stories. Blogger outreach is just the tip of the iceberg for engaging people and providing them with things to report that interest them and their readers/listeners/viewers.
You and Neville Hobson have completed nearly 500 For Immediate Release podcasts. How has your content and audience emerged since you started back in January 2005?
In addition to the 480 episodes we’ve produced of Hobson & Holtz, we’ve also released many interviews, book reviews, and speeches. Since Hobson & Holtz is a show that focuses on what’s happening now, the evolution tracks the changes to social and other new media. For example, we talked quite a bit about Second Life a few years ago; today, virtual worlds get mentioned far less frequently. Now, we spend a fair amount of time talking about Twitter, though.
Another change: We spend less time making the case for businesses to engage in social media and more on the various ways they can do so. Fewer and fewer companies need to convince management that some kind of engagement is required. (Statistics bear this out, by the way, with most research indicating the majority of companies plan to increase their social media spending) .
The audience is pretty much the same, though. They're mostly early-adopter communications leaders with a healthy proportion of non-communicators who are just interested in the topic. For example, one of our frequent commenters, Clarence Jones, works in retail. We also have a few CEOs among our listeners.
You’ve authored or co-authored six business communications books. How has the trade book publishing business changed over the years? What impact do you think social media is having on the future of books?
To be honest, I haven’t noted any change at all to the trade book publishing business from the author perspective. The process is pretty much unchanged. Sales numbers also look about the same. I also don’t see social media having any kind of impact on book sales. On the other hand, the move toward digital (which goes way beyond just social media) will see some copies moving to ebook devices like the Kindle.
I don’t see this affecting business titles in the short term, however, since most people who buy business books like to display them on their office bookshelves (this according to more than one publisher is an important motivator for business title purchases).
I also don’t see a complete end to hard-copy books. Let’s be realistic: Would you take your $300 Kindle on to the beach and risk dropping it in the sand when you doze off? There’s something to be said for the $8 paperback that (a) won’t break when you drop it and (b) you can share with someone else when you finish reading it.
If you were to advise someone just now entering into the field of PR or corporate communications, what would you tell him or her?
I’d say that this is one of the most exciting times in history for getting into this business and that the opportunities are greater than ever.
Then I’d note that the universities are not necessarily teaching communication students what they need to know to thrive in a communications job; that they should pay attention to skills like community moderation, search engine optimization, social media monitoring and measurement, and the like.
I’d also advise them to get involved before they start sending resumes, completing applications and going out on interviews. If they can demonstrate their passion and skill with a blog, a podcast, a Facebook profile, a Twitter account, or some other combination of channels, the jobs just may find them.
One of the most interesting aspects of being a realist is that I find myself sometimes attacked by both extremes. The social media purists don’t think I understand that social media changes everything. (It doesn’t; nothing changes everything.) You should hear the purists when I say there’s still a role for the traditional press release!
Yet research by the Society for New Communication Research [SNCR] proves there is.
On the other hand, traditional communicators and business leaders think I’ve gone over the deep end and assign too much weight to social media. (I don’t; it’s critically important.) For example, I don’t think the organizational structures of old-guard companies will dramatically change because of social media.
The design group will still design the products, the manufacturing group will still handle production, and the marketing group will still drive sales. However, I believe the adoption of social media inside companies will allow for more seamless interaction and collaboration within those structures, altering the way work gets done. This viewpoint doesn’t seem to satisfy either of the extremes (either everything changes or nothing changes).
But I’ve been watching the impact of online communication on organizations since 1985, and I think I have a pretty good handle on it. Based on that, I’d advise people that social media is not the end of the evolution; it’s merely the spot on the continuum where we now reside. More evolution is on the way. Like the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.