These are the words not of a digital marketer but of a man dubbed by some as the “king of spin”, Tony Blair’s former communications director Alistair Campbell.
Campbell was speaking at the Festival of Marketing in London today (13 February) about spin in the social media age but had plenty of advice for brands and CEOs still questioning how deeply they should engage via social media.
He said: “If you’re not on social media, you are dislocated from your markets. You are simply the subject of other people’s opinions, whether right or wrong, about your business.
“If you’re there, you can help shape the dialogue, demonstrating a willingness to engage and explain, building trust and, crucially, shortening the gap between the institution and the audience. It may all seem tactical. Social media used properly is a modern strategic tool.”
Brands need to be strategic
The internet has armed consumers with more information than ever about the corporate behaviour of brands, said Campbell. This provides reputational threats but also opportunities.
“What’s happening is the convergence of corporate reputation and consumer behaviour. If customers suffer a bad experience, their stories can be shared and amplified online and picked up by the mainstream media, policy-makers and regulators. And, in turn, if brands are seen to behave poorly as a corporate entity, people now have the ability to connect and create mass movements against them. Google, Apple, Starbucks, Nestlé, Vodafone, Facebook. People may love what they do and give, but they also want to know whether they respect their customers, pay their taxes, use slave labour, cut down forests or whatever.
“The only way to avoid this is to tackle the reality that can give the bad consumer experience or the bad reputation.”
What you do is more important than what you say
Campbell explained that an unnamed political leader had asked him how a politician can do the right thing and be popular. The answer, he said, was to “do the right thing”.
“But you do it within a clear strategic framework, you engage the public in a much more sustained way, so that over time your messages get through, over time your changes are understood and they deliver, and over time people become much more reasonable in their analysis.
“What you do is more important than what you say, but what you say about what you do will help you if you are doing the right thing. Every time you do or you say, you land a dot.”
Leaders need to narrate a strategy not simply execute it
Campbell highlighted the risk posed to the 68% of Fortune500 CEOs not on social media. “The job of a leader now is not just to execute a strategy but to narrate it, using all means available, internal and external, the two hopefully in harmony.”
He added: “Yet 68 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have no social media presence at all. Many feel that social media represents a poor return on time and investment. Others lack the confidence to engage and fear a hostile response.
“However, the greatest risk posed by social media in today’s world is being absent from the conversation.
“Customers, shareholders, employees, media and activists all have an expectation of transparency, and engagement. Maintaining a licence to operate relies on audiences being able to understand what your company stands for — in good times and in bad. This means communicating the values and mission of the organisation as well as its operational performance.”
He added: “Moreover, the recent BRANDfog study suggests that social CEOs can strengthen brands, build trust in products and services, demonstrate brand values and communicate accountability.”