Thursday, September 23, 2010

"What We've Got Here Is Failure To Communicate"

Litigation communication, like most public relations, relies, in varying degrees, on using the media to deliver the client's message to the general public or the targeted audience. It is, of course, a source of continuing frustration that often the resulting story is at odds with the client's message. Strother Martin's iconic line from Cool Hand Luke, "what we've got here is failure to communicate," immediately leaps to mind. Indeed, according to a recent study conducted by Burson-Marsteller, an affiliate of Hill & Knowlton, a company's message is lost in translation 48% of the time with the mainstream media, and 69% of the time with bloggers.

What accounts for this "failure to communicate" and what can be done about it? Insofar as the mainstream media is concerned, the Burson-Marsteller Message Gap Analysis, points out that in an effort to present a complete story, reporters will often include specific details related to the story that the company fails to provide. Because the specific details may be from a non-company source, the resulting story is not always aligned with the message the company is attempting to communicate. In addition, the mainstream media is also likely to identify and quote critics for a different point of view, especially if there is a potential controversy. Therefore, Burson-Marsteller counsels that in order for a company to increase the odds of its message getting through, it should commit to telling the whole story, otherwise, the media will tell it for the company:
Communicators should expect that journalists will attempt to present a 360-degree view of the story and anticipate and answer questions the media will have when writing the story. The company messages should include responses to these questions to clearly present the company position on potential issues that will arise.
Insofar as bloggers are concerned, they present a more difficult communications challenge. Bloggers, particularly independent ones not associated with more mainstream publications, play by a different set of rules. They often operate with little, if any, editorial oversight. They largely answer to themselves, and that is, in part, how they build an audience and get people to follow them. Moreover, bloggers are more likely to incorporate their own opinions and personal experiences and to bring in messages from multiple sources. Most of them have a deep interest and expertise about the topics they blog about, and therefore are eager to educate others who share their interests. In addition, bloggers are more likely to speculate about the company's underlying intentions and strategy. A good blogger will cut through jargon and spam messaging, and will take on the company for using it. Finally, bloggers who solicit comments and actively interact with their commenters are more likely to generate a broad discussion that may include comparisons to the company's competitors or competitive products. All of these reasons account for why, when a company targets bloggers, or "influencers" as they are often called, the company's message is likely to get through only about 30% of the time. Therefore, Burson-Marsteller counsels that when engaging bloggers, a company increases the odds that its message will get through by being clear, transparent, and forthright:
Communications professionals need to be aware of who is blogging about their content and how their messages are being presented in social media in general. Reaching out to bloggers and Twitterers where appropriate can foster a dialogue that enables the company to clarify its messages for bloggers and keep the communications on target. Also, monitoring, responding to and [re]tweeting bloggers'/Twitterers' posts helps generate a dialogue and gives the company an opportunity to refine the social media message. As with mainstream journalists, anticipating and providing the information that bloggers may want to discuss, including comparisons to competitive offerings and broader issues can help a company position itself in the context that bloggers are likely to write about.
The Burson-Marsteller study is important because it quantifies what we already knew through instinct and experience, that is, when you engage the mainstream media and enter the social media world, it is likely that your client's message will get lost in translation. Knowing this, there are at least two things that a good communications strategy must include. The first is a plan to deliver the message directly to key audiences such as employees, investors, shareholders, and customers through the client's website, Facebook page, Twitter account, email, text messages, and even the old-fashioned telephone. The second is to recognize that when using the media to deliver the message, it is a mistake to think that just sending out a press release will accomplish the mission. Therefore, in addition to the Burson-Marsteller recommendations for dealing with the media, the plan must include a process for following the media and correcting errors, challenging false reports and information, and providing continuous updates.

The journalistic relevance of bloggers is very real and proliferating. The Burson-Marsteller study cites sources who provide the following statistics: there are 200 million blogs; 73% of active online users have read a blog; 44% of those online get news at least a few times a week through posts from social networking sites, automatic updates, and emails; and that 26% of Twitter users get their news from tweets. Monitoring all this activity can be a huge undertaking. In a later post, I will examine how one company is taking on the challenge of monitoring social media in order to manage its message and protect its brand.

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