Communications in the Age of Social Media

A Singapore constituency decided recently to launch its own profile on a popular social media website. The goals were simple, perhaps even noble – to encourage neighbourliness around the estates, and thereby, foster a stronger sense of community. Very quickly, people began to share pictures, post comments, and engage with online banter. Some postings were encouraging and benign; some were disapproving, if not disparaging.

Followers of the page ranged from the upbeat and optimistic to the die-hard cynics – a microcosm of society, if you will. Regardless, controversy erupted in cyberspace when some negative comments ‘disappeared’ from the social media page. This was documented on a couple of blogs and word quickly spread over the selective deletion of comments, which led to accusations that the constituency did not care for negative feedback.
On the other side of the globe, a European company recently found itself embroiled in a similar quandary. Rumours had spread online over the company’s unethical sourcing of raw materials, which had some members of the online community up in arms. They created caricatures of the company logo, produced critical videos, and posted negative remarks about the brand.
The company responded by going on the offensive, demanding that people take down those sites, content and comments that debased the company logo and name – a move that fuelled consumers’ anger towards the company. “They created this huge firestorm online because they didn’t let consumers vent their anger. They wanted to control everything [but] you can’t control every message that goes out there,” said James Issokson, Senior Business Leader in Worldwide Communications at MasterCard Worldwide.
Issokson was speaking from experience – he is an avid tweeter, follower of tweets, LinkedIn, Facebook and YouTube user across both personal and corporate realms. Having lived through several online ‘crises’, he believes that social media challenges people to be better managers of time and relationships.
However, he admits that life has also become more complicated as new grey areas emerge, blurring lines between job responsibilities as well as personal and professional boundaries. Is it the customer service manager’s job to interact with consumers on a Facebook page, or is that better left to the communications manager? How does one measure the ROI for tweets? Do comments on YouTube have legal implications? Should businesses avail themselves on social media channels 24/7? Should a manager respond to a tweet that pops up during family vacation?
Speaking to a group of SMU students at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business Corporate Communications Seminar Series, Issokson took a moment to reminisce about the simpler days from when he first started working in corporate communications. “Things were simple. We would type our press release, send our contacts the press release, the then article comes out 2-3 days later; and maybe do a few interviews along the way.
If the article turned out to be negative, you’d write a letter to the editor, ‘Dear editor, I disagree with the way you’ve covered this…’ and you might see a correction the next day,” he said. To a certain extent, this ‘formula’ still stands today, except that communications managers need to cover a much wider base; work with a greater diversity of responses; account internally for the decisions made – and all of this has to happen quickly too.
So many decisions, so little time
Speed counts when it comes to managing online reputation, unlike the pre-web 2.0 days, where there was more time to deliberate and discuss. In a way, social media is forcing quicker decision-making, Issokson noted. “We had a fairly negative article about the company appear in a publication in New York. I saw the article at 5:30 in the morning. By 6:15, it was floating around the company, and by 8:00, consumers were blogging about it, and shortly, other reporters picked it up and then the firestorm started to brew. We started seeing tweets about the article too.”
So how does Issokson, who heads his company’s communication strategies for legal, regulatory and public policy issues, deal with the demands of social media? His starting point, it seems, is with the humble acknowledgement that there are no silver bullets: “With social media, new challenges arise each and every day. Our goal is to help solve problems, and we know we may not always be successful.”
For one, MasterCard does not respond to all commentaries and opinions expressed online, because if they did, they would need “hundreds of people in the communications department”. As a global brand operating in 210 countries, tracking online discussions can be a monumental task.
However, the company has established social media policies to guide online presence and engagement. Managers rely on these guidelines and their instincts to decide when and how to engage. Should the company respond to comments that follow a blog post, for instance? When should the company respond to tweets? Or how should the messaging differ, online, for queries from Singapore to the US or to South Africa? Is it even possible to ‘talk’ to the world in one sweeping voice?
“We’re sort of in a transition, transitioning from the old way of doing things… to looking at ourselves and thinking: ‘What else can we do with this press release? What can we add to it to make it more social? Let’s make sure we time it so that it goes out strategically on Twitter. Let’s make sure we link it back.’”
“We’re building all of that into our system… so that when we think about announcing a product, we think about how to link it to a video, how to introduce real examples, how to show the ways real consumers are using it, how to get people to talk about it. And frankly, it makes the job more fun, but also a lot more challenging,” said Issokson. But of course, every so often, there will simply be no time to think through and execute according to plan.
Issokson told a story of how MasterCard’s communications team had to deal with a media firestorm that followed just a single blog post: “Within an hour, phones were ringing, major US television networks came knocking, and a petition had started on Twitter.” So even though the company was already drafting its press statement at that point in time, Issokson had sensed the situation was escalating too quickly and there was no time to lose in addressing the mounting criticisms. He decided, there and then, to tweet an update.
“It got picked up instantly, and all of a sudden, all these negative reactions towards MasterCard turned positive,” Issokson recalled. For him, the incident demonstrated the importance of agility in the age of social media. “If we didn’t respond quickly, or if we had missed that online discussion, it would’ve been awful to come into work the next morning to [a wall of] negative sentiments… By putting up that statement on Twitter within that hour, I must’ve picked up 150-200 Twitter followers and got them to understand that we took positive action.”
Can’t leverage without listening
To get a sense of how the brand is perceived online, MasterCard uses a seven-pronged, 29-attribute ‘reputation scorecard’ that studies consumer attitudes across worldwide markets. Specialised agencies, with their online measurement tools and algorithms, aid with listening in on what people are saying about MasterCard across a range of channels.
External help is necessary, Issokson said, because there is no lack of feedback in the online universe: “Whenever we launch new ‘priceless’ ads, I can see instant reviews via channels like Twitter. Our ‘priceless’ brand is known worldwide and people upload their own spoofs on YouTube daily.”
Consumer sentiments about the brand are often received by the company as feedback for the future, and so, the focus is on listening and “developing social insights”, not defending bygone decisions. “Part of this is a test for us, as a corporation,” said Issokson – a test of how tightly the organisation wishes to cling on to the reins, and the extent to which they are willing to let go.
“You have to be comfortable with some criticism of you and your brand, you have to let people vent, and you can’t control everything,” he opined. Spoofs are sometimes met with a shrug, and no effort is made at MasterCard to alter or remove them, Issokson claimed – unless they are “offensive or violate legal rules”.
Referring to the case of the European company earlier, he rationalised that repressive forms of control would sooner rile up and enrage the online community. “Sometimes those conversations aren’t going to be positive and people want to vent. Yet, they are talking about our brand and we will need to monitor and manage those conversations.” The key is to engage and build relationships.
There is a fair amount of trial and error as communications managers attempt to navigate the social media landscape. Whenever Issokson sees tweets of complaints from existing customers, for instance, he offers help or refers them to MasterCard’s customer service managers. In such instances, the company likes to engage directly with consumers to help solve their problems.
Even then, the efforts can sometimes go awry. “We don’t always have control over the decisions that are being made [between the banks, merchants and their customers] but if we place ourselves out there on social media channels, our responsibility is to listen to, and to understand what the issues are and find ways to help,” he said.
Learning to let go
Issokson’s philosophy on managing social media might seem somewhat radical to some, considering the nature and culture of his industry. For sure, the notion of ‘control’ is a touchy one. Here, Issokson admits that not everyone is comfortable with his concept of “trading control for credibility”.
To illustrate, he gave an example of how some people within his organisation had initially requested that he seek clearance for tweets and online comments – just to be safe. “There’s a lot of mindset changing that we’ve had to do,” he noted. “[People] see the value, but most organisations that I talk to; their main issue is with people, and losing control over the conversations.” Issokson’s own response to such challenges has been to take “baby steps” in assuring the stakeholders, to build trust and to educate.
MasterCard kick-started this process some three years ago, with the internal sharing of daily news clips. These clippings include content from traditional newspapers, but more importantly, everyday conversations that occur within the digital space. It was a small step, but it went a long way in raising the organisation’s awareness of the changing communications landscape.
“We want to work with our executive team across the world to help them understand that you can use social media to engage,” Issokson said. It is also important to consider where communication ‘sits’ within an organisation, he added – because communications teams that have a direct reporting line to the executive committee or CEO tend to be more effective at their jobs.
Fast access to accurate information is essential for the new-age communications professional. Organisational response to the changes brought about by social media requires high-level involvement too, as most of the new challenges will relate to larger issues of control and trust.
Functions across the organisation need to be able to work together better (e.g. responding to customers’ tweets may require the support of the customer service, legal, operations and communications departments), and extra resources will be required to manage those new demands brought about by social media. “I can’t be on Twitter all day. My wife will kill me,” Issokson quipped. “It takes work; and many people today take on social media, on top of their day-to-day job responsibilities.”
At the end of the day, Issokson said that organisations need to decide how they wish to position themselves within the digital space. They need to also assess their own capacities to do so. Social media channels are growing exponentially and many companies want to be seen as being able to use these channels effectively, he said.
But how can they do so without stepping on some toes? How should the company expand its web properties without confusing consumers with too much information? In what instances should managers officially engage online? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions but decisions should be made with internal consensus – because success requires collaboration and long term commitment.
About the Author
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