The corporate spokesperson is dead. Long live the corporate spokesperson.
I met with a large TV brand recently and we touched on the corporate spokesperson’s role in a social media world. Has the corporate spokesperson gone the way of the dodo? Is it a case of Darwinian survival of the fittest, where only those who can traverse the often murky social media landscape will survive? And for those that are walking the talk, can they separate their personal and public brands? Or are the two entwined in some kind of Anakin Skywalker / Darth Vader-esque embrace?
Many questions, to which there are many answers. Historically, the corporate message has been sculpted in boardrooms, drilled into sanctioned corporate spokespeople and delivered (we hoped) without deviation to a receptive media corps.
Not that this is all gone, but the era of the three-message-plus-talking-point spokesperson may be coming to an end (or, at least, becoming a secondary means of communicating company messages). If you believe the hype, our media-savvy consumers are flocking to alternative channels to get information. And when it comes to dealing with corporations, they’re wanting to engage with companies on a human level, on their terms, and on their turf. While our corporate spokespeople absolutely need to keep practicing for media outreach, the need for a brand to have spokespeople in social channels can’t be ignored.
So what to do? Not every traditional spokesperson has the right stuff to leap into social channels and – warning, social media cliché – join the conversation. Facebook fans or twitter followers are quite different from those of a journalist. Journalists aren’t typically looking for long-term relationships or dialogue – they’re looking for credible sources with stories to tell. Social media communities, on the other hand, want to hear from a human being – not a press release. Someone who tells it like it is, without bludgeoning them with overt corporate messaging. They want advice and information delivered honestly.
And this is the challenge for PR folks who realize the power of social communities. How do you find a spokesperson that can walk this fine line? How do can you help someone build up virtual relationships and not appear a corporate shill? And, most importantly, how do you ensure they are driving conversations that help their companies succeed. As they say, it aint show friends, its show business.
The first step is determining who the social media spokespeople are. These need to be people who are as comfortable with a blog comment as they are with a quick tweet or creating a new thread in a forum. The best social media spokespeople will have already built up a valid role in these communities. Or if they’re heading into new territory, have the time and aptitude to do this properly.
The second thing is ensuring they are supported. While one approach is to point a spokesperson at a social media channel and let them go, this is a potential road to ruin. Yes, some people are very comfortable in social media channels and like managing conversations. But – and it’s a big but – comfort doesn’t equate to success. We expect our new social spokespeople to build relationships, but also help connect the community to our brand. This is where planning, calendar creation, connection with a business’ marketing and communications function and ongoing coaching become critical.
The third consideration is perhaps the most challenging. Companies have for many years feverishly tried to control their brand presence. While many intellectually realize the need for social media interaction, the very thought of putting a spokesperson into the social media wilderness terrifies many. This is where they need to empower this new generation of spokesperson. Our social media spokespeople need the authority to make decisions and comments in real time. This confidence will often require a chance in corporate policy, real-time escalation and prioritization, and a lot of training.
Hard work, yes. But the returns are becoming clearer. More and more data is showing that social media conversations are critical in forming opinions about brands. Perhaps the real question is – can you afford not to do it?
To circle back, then, to my original premise. Is the corporate spokesperson dead? No, there will always be a role for people who can represent brands in traditional ways. But those that rely on the media as they sole way of communicating with their stakeholders need to look again at how their critical audiences make their decisions – and determine if the megaphone alone is the best path forward.