[Author, Communications Pro Shel Holtz. Photo by Shel Israel]
NOTE--This is the first of a two-part interview with Shel Holtz. He simply had too many useful perceptions to share for me to be able to cut it down into one blog post. If you are a communications professional you really should read this one through.
When controversies rage in social media, as they so often do, Shel Holtz is frequently a voice of calm moderation. He doesn't avoid them, but he is usually late to the conversation and when he joins it he adds value by showing a balanced perspective.
A career communications professional who has sat in agency and corporate seats, a former journalist and a podcast pioneer, Holtz has spent his entire adult life in the communications business. He sees issues with a balanced perspective.
Author of six books and a frequent public speaker, that balance shows that he's picked up a fair amount of wisdom. Shel has been at this social media stuff longer than most people. My view and his do not always coincide. Sometimes we outright disagree.
But his thoughtful, example-filled way of expressing his view always gets my respect and the respect of just about everyone I know.
This is among the longest of my SM Global Reports. I have chosen do do very little trimming because so much of what Shel has to say is worth hearing. If you are a communications professional, it should be required reading.
Last time I interviewed you was in 2005 for Naked Conversations. At that time, you admonished me not to "overrate" blogging.You said it was just "another milestone on the corporate communications continuum." Looking back at it now, do you think blogging was just what you said it was, or is it something bigger?
It’s important not to confuse the tool and the effect it has had. The blog tool itself – a lightweight content management system that produces items in reverse-chronological order and allows readers to comment – simplified and improved what earlier online tools did. In that respect, blogs were a logical evolution of earlier online tools.
On the other hand, if I didn’t think the uses to which organizations can put them weren’t important, I never would have co-authored Blogging for Business!
Still, I must say that business has not embraced blogging to the degree it should. The dearth of blogs by Fortune 500 companies, and the overall percentage of blogs among businesses, indicate that blogging is still in early-adopter mode.
Further, most companies that have blogs aren’t
using them well. Forrester’s research notes that corporate blogs are very, very
low on the scale of communications trusted by customers.
This has nothing to do with the tool and everything to do with the ways they are being used. Many corporate blogs continue to serve as channels for traditional communication rather than authentic conversation. These are the blogs that breed distrust. Between organizations that use blogs in this manner, and those that don’t use them at all, I’d suggest that if blogs are going to have a significant impact on business at large, it’ll happen sometime in the future. It hasn’t happened yet, despite the fact that blogs have had a significant impact on some companies (GM and Dell leap to mind).
There are exceptions, of course, and the exceptions get the attention – as well they should. They demonstrate that organizations can use blogs to improve transparency, to interact directly with customers, to portray the company’s culture, to solicit feedback and input, and to collaborate with audiences to solve problems.
It is my belief that every company should have a blog, since it is the best tool to use when a rapid response is needed.
Finally, the blogs written by customers provide insights companies would be downright irresponsible to ignore. These same insights were available before blogs – through surveys, focus groups and other channels – but blogs have dramatically simplified the process of keeping a finger on the customer’s pulse.
So, yes, I continue to believe that blogs were an evolutionary development from a software standpoint, but that their use is vital to business.
How would you describe Twitter’s role on that continuum? Does it much change the role of the corporate communicator?
Twitter introduced an entirely new model that has begun to have a profound impact on communications.
Some would argue that the real-time monitoring capability is significant. While I believe it’s important, companies and communicators should always be monitoring any source of information that will help them make better decisions, react quickly to challenges and better serve their constituents, from customers to shareholders.
Others argue that business’s leap into Twitter as a marketing channel demonstrates its importance. But business will tap into any new channel where their customers and influencers are. Again, I think some of the innovative uses to which Twitter is being put are exciting, but finding innovative ways to capture attention in new channels is marketing’s job, isn’t it?
Still others will discuss the connection that’s possible between companies and customers. That connection was available on blogs, and even on message boards before that. Twitter takes this to a new level (as Zappos demonstrates) that is exciting and full of potential. But it’s still a logical advance along the continuum.
The biggest change to communications wrought by Twitter is the introduction of what I’ve been calling “the 140-character news cycle.” The speed with which news and rumors can spread has accelerated beyond anybody’s expectations thanks largely to Twitter. We’re beginning to develop a catalog of case studies: Motrin Moms, Amazon Fail, Domino’s Pizza.
Twitter has single-handedly redefined the
meaning of “news.” The communities on Twitter have an insatiable appetite for
updates when an event captures attention and builds momentum.
Organizations that do not fill the 140-character news cycle with their own information will be subject to secondary and tertiary sources of information occupying the void, often with speculative information, messages based on the public’s risk-averse nature or general distrust of institutions, or deliberate misinformation spread by adversaries. Scott Monty’s ongoing infusion of information via Twitter during the Ford Ranger Station situation is a perfect example of an organization ensuring accurate and timely updates are available for people to talk about, preventing the spread of incorrect and potentially harmful information.
I’ve been wondering lately about the potential usefulness of a lifestream utility like Posterous to an organization. Updates such as those Scott provided to Twitter could be added with a bit more substance, while maintaining a chronological record on Posterous where comments can be aggregated.
In any case, organizations once had a luxury of time before responding to events or updating ongoing activities during a crisis. Messages could be crafted, reviewed, analyzed and revised. Today, communicators need to respond far more quickly, which puts an entirely different spin on crisis preparation.
Your website bio puts some emphasis on your abilities to help companies use online resources in a crisis. How important has social media become in crisis management. Can you share an anecdote of something you’ve done for a client in this area?
As I said, the nature of crisis communication has undergone a change that is among the most significant companies must address resulting from social media.
Interestingly, the fundamentals of crises have not changed at all. These include:
- The public is risk-averse
- The public attaches little credibility to business advocates
- The media’s role is based on conflict
- Advocacy groups will exploit your crisis to their own ends
- Emotion, not logic, is at issue. If you engage in debate, you’ll be seen as defensive
- Crises are characterized by symbols: dead birds in the Exxon Valdez crisis, stunned employees carrying boxes of their possessions out of Enron headquarters, overturned Ford Explorers in the Explorer/Firestone Tire crisis.
- Organizational goals are also unchanged: to present and maintain a positive image, preserve constituent support, address mis-perceptions and misinformation and, ultimately, survive the crisis.
Finally, core crisis strategies remain unchanged from pre-social media days:
- Respond quickly, accurately, professionally, and with care
- Be transparent and accessible
- Treat perceptions as fact
- Acknowledge mistakes and address how you will avoid a repeat of the situation in the future
- Tailor messages to address the aggrieved party
- Acknowledge and respect the other side’s concerns
- Make no public confrontations
- Emphasize existing relationships
Given that these fundamentals remain unchanged, it is critical for organizations to acknowledge what has changed. Crises erupt with unprecedented speed. Anyone can break news. And the boboundaries between mainstream media – once (by necessity) the channel for getting your information to the public – and social media have become very porous.
With employees engaged in social media –
whether companies like it or not – they also become voices during a crisis. So
organizations need to recognize that achieving their goals and executing their
strategies require new approaches and a thorough understanding of the new
Again, speed and frequency of response are critical. Keeping employees updated is also vital. Knowing in advance where your audiences are online is important. Knowing who will interact with those audiences and ensuring that individual (or individuals) is empowered to act without endless rounds of approval is equally important – which means training and preparation before a crisis hits is also a requirement. Far too few companies have crisis plans. Those that do have them rarely update them to account for these changes, and even fewer companies drill their crisis plans.
As for my own experience, I recall one client who was under attack by a competitor using misinformation to draw business away. I got then to monitor discussions of the issue among customers so they could correct misinformation, which a customer might inadvertently be spreading. I also had them create a quick-and-dirty WordPress site that listed the allegations of the competitor and offered the truth. It was easy to update and easy to point people – media, influencers, and customers – to the site during online, phone, or face-to-face conversations.