The public relations sector has been quick to embrace Twitter and blogging as a way of reaching, teaching and influencing their audience.
However, given that social media happens in real time, marketers need to take care that their activity in this sector will complement a brand’s overall communications.
Apollo Cinemas marketing manager Nicole Oakley warns that Twitter, for example, is best used with other channels. “Treating Twitter as a standalone platform is a very blinkered approach that sadly many PR agencies take,” she says.
“Many agencies that we spoke to last year had a ’digital specialist’ whose sole job was to amplify PR online. But that is a very narrow view of the potential that social media can deliver.”
Oakley was left frustrated by established agencies that “thought they could activate creative ideas on social networks but were more focused on creating shiny iPad apps and social media ads rather than on how to speak to established communities online”.
A recent blog by PR guru Mark Borkowski picks up the point. His post suggests that “a great many PR folk are in danger of believing their own spin about the opportunities the online world can bring”.
Speaking to Marketing Week, Borkowski advises brands to first ask why they want to enter a certain social media platform and then start listening and monitoring what’s going on in that space. This takes time, effort and investment, but it’s an area where PR can excel, he says.
“One thing PR can do at its best is understand the tone of voice, the relationship the brand has with different groups and know how best to talk to them.”
Few get it right first time and brands need to be flexible in how they use social media. Tom Astin, PR manager for Europe at Electrolux, admits the company’s Design Lab blog started as a location that hosted standard press releases about Electrolux Design Lab.
“The copy wasn’t optimised for a social media platform,” he admits.
To remedy the situation, Electrolux ditched the long press releases and brought in content on a broader range of design-related topics. “We also use it as a clear way of connecting to other platforms related to the lab, such as Facebook, YouTube and Flickr,” says Astin. “This provided a connection of channels and so reinforced the depth of content available.”
As a result, visitor numbers to the blog trebled, YouTube videos created for the project were seen twice as many times and Electrolux’s Facebook following rose 10-fold. “Our blogs are blossoming because there’s a freedom that accommodates the writers’ own style and their individual interpretation of what is relevant. Giving that trust has seen a real interest in our messages,” Astin says.
Sun Microsystems is one of the most famous examples of a corporate blog that instilled trust. Former chief executive Jonathan Schwartz’s blog was positive, negative, informative and even inane at times, but most importantly it was open.
Following his departure from Sun, Schwartz is now adding to his blog under the heading “What I couldn’t say”, drawing in new readers.
In his first post-Sun entry a year ago, he wrote: “As a CEO, you have an obvious and explicit agenda to drive awareness for the company, its products and ideas. As an individual, my agenda isn’t nearly so clear. On the one hand, I’d like to put context around some of the decisions I faced at Sun. There was almost always more going on behind the scenes than was obvious to the outside world.”
For many companies, finding a balance between making content interesting and communicating a brand message can be tricky. Rentokil may be experiencing success with its blogs (see Viewpoint, above) but media manager Alicia Holbrook warns: “Never, ever hard sell, brag or boast.” Copy that seems to advertise will be easily spotted.
Brands must also target bloggers carefully, and in the most relevant way. Libby Andrews is a PR by day, but by night she is food blogger Ravenous Libby. She wanted to know how to interact with what was becoming an increasingly influential audience but has been surprised how brands have approached her.
“I’ve received emails from PRs asking me to write about stuff,” she says. But the brands that succeed in getting coverage are those that take the time to build a relationship with her.
Sony, for instance, has been investing in relationships with bloggers and tweeters (see Q&A, right). Twitter can be a good way to approach the press because “it’s less intrusive and sales-like and journalists warm to that”, according to one agent.
Bloggers, though, are different beasts to journalists, not least because they work for free. This has brought the dividing line between editorial and advertorial into the spotlight. The Office of Fair Trading has vowed to crack down on social media sites that contain undisclosed paid-for promotions. It says paid-for activity must be clearly identified, a move that precedes the extension of the Advertising Standards Authority’s remit to regulate companies’ online marketing communications.
The fact that some bloggers are paid in kind blurs the lines further, as drinks blogger and wine writer Simon Woods says: “As soon as you develop any sort of personal relationship with someone working for either a brand or their PR agency, then people are entitled to question your impartiality. Transparency is the important factor. If money changes hands in conjunction with a particular story, then readers need to know.”
But brands must also be aware that they cannot control this content, says Naomi Segal, campaign director at Global Cool, a green lifestyle organisation. “The purpose of monitoring is so you can highlight the good stuff and respond in an appropriate way to the negative stuff,” she says.
Some of the best results have actually come from PRs hoovering up negativity. Insurance company Swiftcover recently experienced the wrath of an angry tweeter with more than 10,000 followers. Senior marketing manager Amanda Edwards explains that this was resolved via a direct conversation with the angry Twitter user. “This wasn’t just a case of winning back one customer,” she says. “It would have left a bad brand impression with well over 10,000 people on Twitter in just one incident. Brands that aren’t monitoring what is being said about them could be in for quite a shock.”
Some brands have thrust themselves into the social media space, including British luxury car brand Range Rover, which recruited a number of celebrities to drive a new model and tweet about the experience. In the US, stars can be paid up to £32,000 a month to promote brands on Twitter, but tweets have to be preceded by the word ’ad’ or ’spon’.
Celebrity endorsement doesn’t have to come at a cost. Jenny McLaughlan runs a business selling baby-friendly necklaces. The product is new, so the dilemma she had was marketing it without spending any money. “I knew endorsement had power, but letters to agents didn’t work so I decided to tweet a few celebs,” she says. “Denise van Outen tweeted back asking for a necklace, so I sent one. She liked it, tweeted about it and my followers quadrupled in number. Website hits also went from 30 to 470 in the two hours after the tweet.”
But you don’t always need celebrity endorsement to ensure your brand features in social media. Royal Mail’s Stamp Fact of the Day campaign caught the public’s imagination and enabled it to reach beyond the philately community. About a quarter of Royal Mail’s followers have bought a presentation pack since the feed was launched.
There are many brands getting social media right, and using it effectively to enhance their traditional PR. Given preparation, patience and sometimes luck, the opportunities are there.
Sun Microsystems’ Schwartz summed it up when asked what he would do having just resigned. He used Twitter to reply: “With a few million businesses and a few billion consumers on the web, rumour has it there are some interesting opportunities to be had.” The same goes for brand PR.
Social media manager
Social media channels are often a way for people to air problems and annoyances, and what is more annoying than wasps? Facebook has a handful of “I hate wasps” groups and last year we launched our “#UKwaspwatch” feed to help us identify wasp hotspots. It wasn’t promoted heavily, but it created plenty of chatter.
This year we’ll be doing it again, but combining it with other activities, including a “springcleaning Twitter party” with advice on cleaning and pest avoidance. There will also be a “Everyone has a pest control story – what’s yours?” blog competition to encourage people to talk about pests.
There’s a fine line between boring people with brand awareness and engaging them. About half our tweets carry a subtle message that we are the experts in pest control. The other half may be commenting on a news story relating to pest control.
We accept blogs from anyone who can offer industry insight or a fun, lighthearted look at the sector. We’ve taken posts from scientists, photographers and comic enthusiasts. It’s also important to let employees share their stories – a blog is the perfect platform to communicate the human side of a brand.
For that reason the “hard sell” is a no-no. What you do need to do is constantly monitor. If someone speaks to you, they expect an answer immediately – if you don’t reply within a set timescale the opportunity can be lost.
Ultimately, we would love to have a dedicated social media team around the globe that would help us spread our brand message and monitor Twitter 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Identifying the preferred media platforms in each country is a challenge. We’re currently working on a new blog for Spain. It’s not just a case of translating an English post – you have to think about what works in different regions and the different pest problems they have.”
NICK SHARPLES, CORPORATE
Marketing Week (MW): How have you been talking to bloggers?
Nick Sharples (NS): We’ve been investing time with bloggers for the past four or five years, and have found that this can pay dividends. Because we invested in blogs when they were small, our relationship has grown with them. If we organise a press trip, we’ll take established and newer bloggers.
MW: Do you treat bloggers differently to journalists?
NS: I’ve got no problem bringing established bloggers and journalists together for trips and events. Increasingly, journalists don’t see that as a problem either – they recognise there are good quality bloggers out there and many journalists write their own blogs too.
MW: Do you ever give bloggers exclusive material?
NS: We tend not to as their reach might not be sufficient. What you can do though is plant ideas, or offer smaller leaks – that can be very effective. The online space is perfect for creating speculation before a launch. We did it for the Vaio P, which was on the Sony New Zealand website for four hours. The speculation that drove until the launch resulted in that product getting significantly more media coverage than another one unveiled at the same time.
MW: How do you ensure social media compliments the rest of your communications?
NS: There’s a tendency to look at blogging and Twitter for a particular campaign – to gather followers and move on. It’s not quite that extreme, but there is a subtle balance between PR looking at the long term and marketing seeing it as the short term. You need to bring those together. When we put out press releases, we provide our sales teams with suggested feeds to amplify [our messaging] in the online channels.
MW: What are your thoughts on celebrityendorsements?
NS: You have to be very careful how you choose them. We’ve used them in the past, but tend to have a group of writers that we loan products to and they review them. The fact that they are loaned [rather than given] the products gives the reviews, and those who write them, authority.