On May 7, 2009, Boyd Neil, Senior Vice President and Director of Hill and Knowlton’s National Corporate Communications Practice moderated a very timely discussion with three panelists as part of the Empire Club of Canada’s lunch ‘n learn experience. Joining Boyd for a very candid discussion on the challenges and opportunities that come with the continued rise of Social Media in business and industry was Peter Aceto, President and CEO of ING Direct, Suzanne Fallender, Manager Corporate Responsibility at Intel Corp and Tom Watson, Senior Writer for Canadian Business Magazine.
Boyd set the foundation for the ensuing discussion by suggesting that because “more people are connected in more ways than ever before,” business leaders have to seriously rethink their approach to engagement and reputation management. He argued that because public trust in companies has declined so drastically over the past few years, social tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube have become the new “anatomy of interaction” for consumers to assemble and organize around both action and dissent. Boyd then went on to suggest that generic brand building strategies need be abandoned in favour of people first strategies which do a much better job of tapping into real conversations that reside in communities of interest. Finally he concluded his opening monologue before turning it over to the panelists by hammering home the message that the “new backbone of influence” is in fact the social network.
The hour long discussion with the panelists presented differing viewpoints on the subject in addition to some key take home messages for any business toying with the idea of leveraging social media to drive communication strategies. Below are some key messages that I walked away with from being a part of this enlightening discussion.
Alignment with corporate values/culture is extremely important for social media success
Peter Aceto (@CEO_INGDIRECT), one of a handful of twittering CEOs today shared some very candid remarks with Boyd and the panel on how and why he chooses to put the reputation of himself and his company out there 140 characters at a time. According to Peter, social media is not for every organization.
Truly understanding your organization’s values and culture he suggests are two of the most important elements for making social media work for you – not against you. To grow trust among your consumers he added, values such as transparency, honesty and no surprises are required daily. For Peter it became clear that social media (i.e., Twitter) provided the perfect catalyst to allow customers to see inside ING Direct and develop trust not only in leadership but in the business itself. By projecting an authentic presence and backing it up, Peter is effectively using social media to listen to his customers while gaining inisghts on how his business can improve.
Culture on the other hand, is also a huge determinant in whether a business should actively pursue social media as a way to engage and connect with stakeholders. Peter told the panel and audience that if the culture of a business does not include innovation, customer focus and challenging the status quo – then social media is not a place it belongs.
Social media is a complimentary tool as opposed to a stand alone solution
Intel Corporation has a rich tradition of engaging stakeholders using social media tools according to Suzanne Fallender. Dating back to 2003, Intel began a grass roots employee blogging initiative which took off and eventually culminated in the creation of a Social Media Centre for Excellence in 2008. When asked by Boyd whether she foresees a day in the future when blogs would serve as the primary source for corporate social responsibility reporting (CSR), Suzanne remarked “not anytime soon!” The rationale behind her answer is based on her belief that social media is more of a complimentary tool to CSR reporting as opposed to a replacement. Although Suzanne believes that social media will become more involved in CSR reporting going forward, traditional documentation such as the 10K and 10Q are here to stay.
It was clear from Suzanne’s remarks that Intel has a strong commitment to continuous learning in the social media space. With the creation of the Social Media Centre for Excellence, any Intel employee looking to become more involved with Social Media has a wealth of resources at his/her disposal. From training courses on digital intellectual property to educating employees on the legal issues that come along with using social media tools, Intel has ensured that its employee’s conduct is becoming and in-line with good corporate responsibility. Furthermore, Suzanne stated that Intel had clear goals in mind when they chose to implement an internal social media initiative. These goals included increasing engagement among employees, promoting the sharing of information and developing an adaptive framework for listening and addressing problems that may reside outside the reach of more formal communication networks. “You just can’t push” she added, “you must look for conversations that already exist” and join those conversations to derive real value from social media.
Traditional journalism is NOT surrendering its role to the community
The majority of the questions and comments directed at Tom Watson (@notsocrates) during the panel discussion revolved around the notion that traditional forms of journalism are under siege from the social media community. According to Tom, the only threat he sees to traditional journalism is related to cost structure. “We have always competed for eyeballs” he stated, if anything the rise of social media just “empowers journalists further” he went on to say. However, Tom did acknowledge that traditional journalism mediums will need to look for different forms of revenue if they are to prosper in this new environment. One suggestion offered was social media subscription based services since Tom feels “people will always be willing to pay more to have a trusted outlet filter through and assemble an information package about the world today.” In addition, the speed at which today’s news and information travels does not concern Tom nor does he feel it poses a threat to traditional journalism. I agree with Tom’s statement as quantity can never replace quality when the playing field is public information and dissemination.
As the general public continues to demand transparency and accountability from the companies they do business with, senior leaders within those businesses are starting to realize that they may be ill prepared to accommodate the public’s request. From the insights shared by the panel, it was evident that it is imperative for today’s businesses to be proactive and routinely conduct self-assessments of their readiness to deal with emerging social media. Not doing so can have serious consequences – as Amazon learned last month when Twitter users found out that a cataloguing error caused gay and lesbian book titles to lose their sales rankings and become harder to find in searches.
The reality for any business that has an online presence today is that it needs to have deployed and dedicated resources listening and responding in real-time where consumers are talking about their business. Senior leaders that fail to see the value in having a strategy for dealing with social media are missing a large opportunity to connect with and gain trust from multiple stakeholders, including employees and consumers. Social media is far from a fad, and the sooner businesses engage in the medium, the faster they will learn and the better prepared they will be for when best practices do emerge.