Sorting out your reality problem – the crux of social business

Every now and again you come across a piece of writing that hits the nail squarely on the head. An article that resonates so strongly with you that you find yourself nodding furiously in agreement as you read it.

This is one such article. Alistair Campbell who most will know from New Labour has written a brilliant piece on why the world of PR is changing – It’s a must read piece for anyone working in the practice of communications.

There are a couple of key points that stand out for me but the one that really struck a chord was this:

I get calls from people out of the blue – again the new world. I am on Facebook, Twitter and people can email me direct on my website. Helps me cut out middle men and agents and get better deals for what I do. Makes people feel you are accessible – which I am. But when a government or company or a big brand comes on, I always assume two things – they have a problem, and they think it is about the communications. They think they need a spin doctor.

So I go and see them and the first thing I do is say who are your key people, and I ask to see them too, at the same time. And I get out some plain white postcards.

And on each one is written the words ‘The main objective of our organization is…’ and I ask them to end that sentence. Then I ask them to turn over the postcard, and it says ‘The strategy to meet our objective is…’ and I ask them to fill that out too. Then I gather them in. And nine times out of 10, I gather in a stack of different objectives, strategies which are tactics, or strategies which are objectives, and I say to them… you don’t have a spin problem, you have a reality problem. And I say if you are not aligned on strategy, you the key people running the show, why should the public be expected to know and hear what you are trying to say or sell to them, and why should the media not take every chance it can get to make your life more difficult, pore over your errors, ignore your successes?

So good public affairs is not about spin; it is about strategy, and reputation.

Spot on.

However, how does a PR manager or agency partner even begin to address this? As Campbell rightly points out the role of communications within many organisations is treated as a luxury. Very few in the industry are able to command the level of trust and respect required to get senior executives to ‘align on strategy’. I daresay you need to be an old, white man with grey hair which knocks out a lot of those currently working in the profession.

There are ways and means though. And I believe this is where the notion of social business can really come into it’s own (and by social business I mean something akin to this definition).

One of the best ways of helping a company sort out its reality problem is to objectively show it what its community thinks of it (and by that I don’t mean Facebook fans. I mean customers, employees, partners, suppliers, shareholders, competitors and pretty much anyone with someone to gain or lose by that company).

Knowing what your stakeholders think of you has always been good business. The beauty of the technological world we live in means we now have the tools to cost effectively capture that intelligence and then analyse it and work it into a strategic approach (and no I’m not just talking about social listening. I mean in-depth community analysis both inside and outside an organisation).

Taking this one step further, those in PR/comms advisory roles should add running strategic workshops to their offerings as well as tactical creative implementations (I highly recommend this book called Gamestorming as a good place to start). Then they need to start speaking the language of business (ie how can I help you make money or how can I help you save money).

I’ve long believed the world of PR goes further than press, media and spin. It’s good to read the alleged king of spin echo that sentiment.

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Thoughts on helping agencies help clients

Following on from my last post on ‘what’s really behind the social brief‘ I thought it might be a good idea to expand on some practical steps to elevate the problem that many agencies face when it appears their clients don’t ‘get it’.

Training and education seem the obvious first step to start. However let me break down the notion of ‘training’ in terms of what people expect it to be and what it best delivers.

One of the best ‘training’ session I’ve ever been involved in was conducted by my good friend and ex-colleague Hastie Aftkhami (who is global head of training at Social@Ogilvy). I put the inverted commas around the word training because if fact it didn’t fell like training at all. It was a session on training trainers and it centred on how training session should be set out. The crux of the session was that training isn’t so much about imparting wisdom as opening people’s minds to new behaviours and giving them frameworks to adapt seamlessly to those behaviours.

The common misconception people have around training typically aligns around the expectation that they will be told what to do for a particular scenario. For instance, a new department has been given a new piece of software to use and the team who designed the software run a ‘training session’ on the features of using that software. All very well and good you might say, but the problem with many of these types of training is more often than not, the facilitators completely fail to appreciate the environment in which they product will be used. To borrow from another psychological reference, they lack the empathy and emotional intelligence to understand how they users will use they products in anger (ie on a day-to-day basis when the pressure is on).

When it comes to running social media led campaigns for clients, agencies can fall into this trap. Particularly when the client isn’t really sure what it is they want. Most agencies will act dumb and just churn out something for the client based on some loose notion of what they ‘think’ they want.

The smart agencies will attempt to educate the client on what they should be doing often with varying degrees of success and then resort to churning out something for the client based on some loose notion of what they think they want.

The really smart agencies go the extra mile to open a clients mind around the new behaviours a social media led campaign should bring about and set out a vision of what it will deliver. And naturally this will map back to an underlying business objective the client has. That could be helping them towards increasing a market share, reducing an operating cost or perhaps even increasing sales or revenue!

It starts however with really getting to know what your clients business is all about and then helping them visualise what the future will look like with your help. It certainly isn’t easy. But then if it was, everyone would be doing it right.

Of course, I’m always open to a different point of view.