Sometimes even the most market-savvy companies need a refresher course in PR 101. Case in point: the recent network crash of Amazon’s cloud computing service, which affected hundreds of companies, including Foursquare, Quora, Hootsuite, and Reddit. By relying 100 percent on social media to communicate with press and customers--turning a blind eye to direct inquiries from the former and urgent appeals for help from the latter--Amazon managed to outrage both. In the end, its obtuse handling of all concerned might have done more damage to the company’s reputation than the network failure itself.
You might have expected this Web 2.0 giant, which in general does such a superb job understanding and responding to its customers’ needs and interests, to be on top of engagement with the media, too. What happened was the opposite. While engineers worked around the clock to fix data center issues, the communications team did the unthinkable: It ignored request after request for comment from media, instead staying in touch via general updates posted on the company blog.
Long after its systems failures are forgotten, people will remember how Amazon stonewalled the press. Before shaking your head in judgment, however, consider that any number of companies--perhaps even yours--today could be setting themselves up to repeat these blunders with the media. For that, credit the rise of social media not just as a key tool in communications programs, but as their replacement.
Social media has upended many aspects of corporate communications, requiring rapid response time, direct and public interactions, and a constant content stream. It is a revolution in perspective, and companies that continue to rely on the megaphone-style model of mass press releases and dogged adherence to top-down quarterly plans are already being left behind by the world of sharing, tweeting, and organic search.
But what online engagement offers in the form of flexibility and direct contact, it can lack in actual openness and accessibility. Feeling empowered by the ability to speak to “their” people, corporate kings can use new media to make a huge mistake, ignoring the trained questioners whose content--be it for major publications or smaller blogs--is every bit as integral to online reputation as any in-house update to the company Web site.
Although social media represents a major evolution in communications, it is not--as many companies, notably those from the ranks of technology, assume--a substitute for the fundamentals of public relations. Particularly in times of crisis, people want a human face and voice, not a blog or a tweet. Corporate leadership must step forward, acknowledge the problem, take responsibility, provide full disclosure, and outline progress on resolving the crisis. Communications departments must provide regular updates to media and ensure access in or as close to real time as possible.
As other businesses contend with the transition into new and social media, the tale of the online retailing giant that “froze on mute” offers several key takeaways:
- The “choice” between old and new media is false. Old media is becoming new media; your blog post might show up in search results well below a relevant article from The Wall Street Journal.
- Content might be king, but some of it won’t be yours. Talking to your audience directly matters, but the dirty truth of information overload is that people actually like having filters, as long as those curating and commenting intermediaries have earned some trust. Good journalists--wherever and however they publish--are here to stay and ignored at your company’s peril.
- Good improv isn’t improv; bad improv becomes legendary. Online media’s natural informality doesn’t mean it should be approached carelessly. Quite the contrary--only highly skilled, highly trained communicators can be ready to act on a story or a crisis in real time. And the alternatives--from poor responses to none at all--can live in infamy via links and archives forever.
Online engagement tools are invaluable in the hands of professionals who understand their value as a supplement to--not a substitute for--traditional communications. Rapid news development, viral commentary, and the instant availability of hundreds or thousands of versions of a story have expanded and deepened the need for top-level public relations skills. The best corporate communicators will dive into new media armed with a PR expert’s sense of openness and accessibility. Anything less will be a crisis in the making.