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How Social Media is Changing Public Relations

January 21st, 2011 · 3 Comments · All Posts, ReneeWarren

In 2010, facing the biggest public relations crisis in recent history, oil company BP turned to the one medium that could instantly address public concern: social media. Nearly six months after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill occurred, BP has nearly 48,000 Facebook fans, over 19,000 Twitter followers and more than three million YouTube channel views.

Social media updates describe cleanup efforts, research projects targeting impacts of the oil spill and calls for volunteers.

While the success of BP’s social media efforts is debatable, few people can argue the need to monitor and address online comments and feedback. As BP has shown, the biggest change may be the new challenges in reputation management. With these challenges also come new opportunities – opportunities to mitigate bad press, connect with customers and reach potential influencers in the media.

New Threats, New Opportunities

Reputation management isn’t just necessary for big corporations. Small businesses also benefit from monitoring social media chatter, whether or not they have social media profiles. Simple searches on Facebook and Twitter reveal valuable information about customer satisfaction, competitor weaknesses and new market opportunities.

When redesigning the website for their Palm Springs bed and breakfast, for example, owners of The Willows, found several glowing reviews on TripAdvisor.com to feature in the copy.  Other business owners may have dozens of bad online reviews and not even realize it.

Ignoring social media not only jeopardizes a business’s public perception but also puts it at risk of expensive lawsuits. Lack of knowledge about information shared over social media, whether by an employee or someone claiming to represent the company, does not excuse the company from legal liability for damages that may ensue.  Or worse, letting the power of the crowd take over your brand image. In the case of Tim Horton’s in Rhode Island, a last minute decision to support the National Organization for Marriage’s event resulted in a slew of comments about the company’s support of gay marriages.  The company had an instant PR disaster to deal with, to protect their image.

Online Reputation Management

To combat these threats, some companies are shaping online discussions by using social media to provide better customer service. COMCAST, for example, employs several people to monitor Twitter feeds for complaints and to provide online help.

Since COMCAST started using Twitter for customer service, other companies have followed suit, including Southwest Airlines, Home Depot, Ford and H&R Block. In fact, a Twitter-based complaint about almost any major brand now sparks a quick response from its PR department asking how it can help. This instant, one-on-one attention is often all that’s needed to turn a disgruntled customer into a lifelong fan.

Even local brands now use Twitter to address customer feedback. Stauffers of Kissel Hill, a chain of grocery stores in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, monitors its Facebook page carefully. In July, a customer left a message on the Facebook page saying the noodles she purchased had turned rancid. Stauffers responded:

We will notify the store asap. Remember that Stauffers has a 100% satisfaction guarantee or double your money back! Please stop at customer service and we’ll refund your money x 2! … it doesn’t have to be today…next time you are at the store would be fine!

The customer not only left an appreciative comment in return, but wrote an entire blog post about how the experience made her appreciate her local grocery store.

Influencing the Influencers

Another way PR firms shape online discussion is by using social media to contact journalists with article pitches and relevant details. Online service Help a Reporter Out (HARO) makes this easy by letting journalists contact a database of PR professionals with requests for sources, products and other information.

Entrepreneur Peter Shankman created HARO in 2008 to unite journalism and PR. It has since published over 75,000 journalist queries to a database of over 100,000 PR professionals. In addition to sending about three daily email newsletters of journalist queries, HARO also publishes tweets about urgent source requests. An example of one such tweet:

URGHARO: journalist@email.com needs verifiable examples of companies using non-traditional customer service reps instead of traditional reps

This gives PR firms direct access to influential content producers, while making it easy for journalists to find the right sources, even on tight deadlines.

The Bigger Picture: PR and Social Media

With these new opportunities for improved public relations, no PR firm should be without a social media strategy. This strategy may differ for each client. BP has vastly different needs than a neighborhood grocery store, for example. But in today’s world, no company – no matter what its size or scope – can afford to be without an effective social media plan.

 Renee Warren

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