PR’s New Winding Road: Can this New Order Help Ease Inevitable Organizational Changes?

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If the last few years are an indication of how people are becoming much stronger voices for news events and whose opinion are the impetus for organization and government action, it’s clear that this is not a trend.

From JC Penney, to Kitchen Aid, to the NSA, and now Food Network’s Paula Dean, these organizations have quickly learned what to do in the face of a public scrutiny.

I decided to take a deeper dive into this topic, and had the distinct pleasure of sitting down with Ann Marie Van den Hurk, author of the newly published book, Social Media Crisis Communications, to tackle a subject very much at the forefront for many organizations.

HJ: The Role of PR has radically changed since social media. A “new” accountability has necessitated organizations, hence customer and media-facing communicators, to respond and adapt to new expectations. Agree or Disagree?

Social media has changed the role of public relations. In many ways, it is putting the “public” back into public relations, which is a good thing for the profession. It is allowing professionals to use an important skill that was always been there just not really used: listening.

And yes there is a new accountability for organizations. It is not just push out and down, but a two-way street. I know that sounds cliché, but I believe it is true.

Social media has opened another direct communication channel between organizations and the public outside of someone visiting a brick and mortar location having a face-to-face interaction with staff. People now expect a response and interaction with organizations.

It is forcing organizations and those in an outward facing role to be more open, nimble, and interactive on a larger scale than ever before.

HJ: Does PR lead or does Marketing and PR take on a dual role in handling crisis? Considering Marketing may also be monitoring and dealing directly with customers, how do you see each of these departments changing (coexisting) in the future?

Totally different skill sets and functions. They should work together as should every department in an organization. Public relations is about creating relationships and understanding between an organization and the public. Marketing is about lead generation and the process of selling a product or service.

Public relations should take the lead in a crisis. In a crisis communications response team, marketing professionals should be on the team along with others based on their expertise.

In terms of monitoring, both departments are monitoring (or they should be); however, the indicators maybe different. In a crisis though, all monitoring should be fed into the crisis communications response team.

HJ: There are countless examples of organizations figuring out early in the game that traditional PR methods won’t work. They’ve given the rest of us fodder to learn and figure out NOT what to do. And yet, it still remains that many organizations are still ill-equipped to handle social media crises today. Why is that the case?

The traditional PR methods for crisis communications do work. The playbook hasn’t changed; however, they need to be deployed instantly. That means organizations need to be prepared with a solid crisis communications plan in place, strong monitoring program, and a trained team. The two-hour window for response isn’t there anymore.

The window has closed to 10-20 minutes. Social media is a megaphone that spreads information — and misinformation quickly. Prepared organizations can manage a crisis better. They aren’t scrambling to organize a team and figure out the process, but instead can use the time working towards a response and solving the situation.

There is an organizational mindset that they don’t feel that they need a crisis communication plan. Rationale is that they feel like they won’t ever need it. Yet at the same time, they feel like a crisis is right around the corner.

HJ: Can you respond to the recent Facebook relenting to extreme pressure from interest groups and their campaign against Mysogyny on the Platform?

Women and abuse

This could be a totally different article on to itself. And this is my opinion on culture…

This is a complex issue with many different layers. Multiple issues here: cultural, legal, and moral. Facebook is a community. And communities need guidelines for expected community behavior. Based on what I’ve read, Facebook’s guidelines for community behavior weren’t clear nor were they evenly enforced.

There can’t be double standards for different groups of the community.

Breast cancer survivors and nursing mothers shouldn’t be blocked while explicit nude photos of women are acceptable. Here is where the cultural bias comes to play. Breast cancer survivors and nursing mothers make some people uncomfortable because it isn’t fitting into their western views of women and sexuality.

Pages encouraging violence toward women and frankly anyone else shouldn’t be acceptable to the Facebook community. Rape is illegal. Why would it be OK to have pages encouraging rape?

Community outraged ensued regarding misogynic behavior on Facebook. Groups organized and a classic activism campaign against Facebook took place to ensure that concerns were heard then action was taken to fix the situation.

Facebook for a social platform doesn’t seem very social. Facebook wasn’t listening to their users. They were tone deaf. They didn’t seem to understand their users. In 2012, 64% of Facebook users were women. And once Facebook was listening, they were not moving fast enough in reacting to the community outrage. Or at least at the speed the activists were expecting.

HJ: Given the current structures and processes today, do you think it’s difficult for companies to evolve to become more adaptable and more effective to market responses? If so, what can they do today to increase their effectiveness (especially if the culture itself has not yet evolved).

I think change is difficult for most organizations. Routine and process are comfortable. Change causes uncertainty and discomfort. What makes it difficult for organizations is their organizational culture. If an organization is open and willing to take risks then change can happen and happen quickly.

Often a crisis can cause change. Or it should cause change. I wouldn’t suggest that an organization have crisis to force rapid change though.

Outside of a crisis, they can listen to their communities and allow those listening to respond. That’s one small, yet big cultural change with a huge impact.

HJ: Please respond to changing from PR “spin” to “authenticity” and “transparency”. How do traditional PR people respond to this? Has the profession, in general, seem to have adopted this mode of thinking? How does this change the role of PR and how are they now measured given new accountabilities?

I really do not like to use the word “spin” and PR in the same sentence. Makes my skin crawl as a professional. It does such a disservice to the profession and the professional. For the most part, PR professionals have always wanted to authentic and transparent. Sadly it is a small few who give the profession a bad name.

The goal of PR is share, inform, education, and build relationships. It is to ensure the free flow of information and build trust. It can be accomplished by being authentic, transparent, and knowledgeable.

Social media is forcing many of my peers outside of their comfort zone. And that’s OK. It is hard to move from control to manage. Mindset shift.

HJ: Where PR crises affects sales: There are countless examples of this. What do you think about the recent case of Abercrombie and Fitch? Will they survive the CEO’s remarks and the countless campaigns that attack the company’s target statements about who they make clothes for? What can A&F do to salvage this?

Abercrombie and Fitch sales drop

That’s what a crisis is… it needs to affect the bottom line or an organization’s ability to conduct business. Is AF in a crisis? Maybe. Its reputation has been dented. It will be interesting to see how 1st and 2nd quarter earnings compare then compare how 2nd and 3rd quarter earnings. That is going to tell if there was an impact from the CEO’s remarks. It is a publicly traded company and shareholders will demand change if the bottom line slips.

Remember they have weathered many storms the past couple decades such as charges of discriminatory hiring practices. If earnings slip, then an organizational change must take place. It usually means a leadership change; however the organization may need to change a lot more.

I’ve got to say this: an organization can have the best PR team, but if the organization can’t live up to it then it isn’t going to help. You can put longwearing lipstick on a pig, but eventually it will wear off. Organization change needs to take place in order for a recovery to happen.

HJ: A recent article indicated that in 2014, these brands will cease to exist. Volvo, JC Penny, Mitsubishi, Martha Stewart Living. Can you comment whether PR had some “involvement” in their eventual demise?

Pretty much what I said above about you can put longwearing lipstick on a pig, but eventually it will wear off. Organization change needs to take place in order for a recovery to happen.

HJ: In the new world order, reputation is just a strong indicator of retention and sales and thus changes the way companies behave. Campaigns cannot be done in a vacuum any longer. Listening becomes mainstay but the expectation is to go beyond and respond “to the customer satisfaction”. What are the best technologies out there that :

  • can properly filter out the noise
  • allows a company to easily organize the information and disseminate it out to appropriate departments
  • allow a company to measure the effectiveness of engaging/resolving issues instigated online
  • gives a company some degree of comfort that they are properly managing customer and market discussions/concerns

There are a lot of tools out there right now to listen to conversations. And the marketplace is changing daily. You’ve got your free and basic monitoring sites such as Mention, SocialMention, Topsy , and Who’s Talkin. If you are looking for more sophisticated monitoring, you can go with one of the many paid services, including the following: Tickr or Trackur .

The following sites can help you find influencers and developing trends:

amvandenhurkAbout Ann Marie Van den Hurk: An award winning PRSA-accredited hybrid public relations counselor bridging the gap between traditional PR and social media at Mind the Gap. She has over a decade of intensive experience assisting businesses and non-profits in successfully navigating today’s digital-led business landscape, including websites, social networking, blogging, and mirco-blogging; taking leadership in sensitive issues, crisis communications and reputation management; and development and implementation of strategic communications/public relations plans and programs. She has just published her first book, Social Media Crisis Communications.

image: drinksmachine
image: BusinessInsider

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