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Angela Casey, MD of CM Porter Novelli, asks which organisations should avoid social media

PR has undergone its own seismic shift in the last few years with the explosion in social and online media. Every good PR person is mindful of new media and with almost 50 million tweets a day, there is no stopping the social flock as it grows. Does this growth signal the death knell for the more traditional elements of PR? Should all our press releases now contain only 140 characters, a hashtag and an emoticon?

During the election, the increased use of online against print media and marketing was fascinating. With political iphone apps, Tory election broadcasts on YouTube and an election that was broadly run online with candidates and party strategists revealing their hand via Twitter, the more traditional methods were running a poor second. It is hard to compete with a Tory iphone swingometer!

Traditional PR tools are similarly having to compete with the far more glamorous need for instant online gratification. With all press releases going out electronically and the fax machine silent, we have all had to get sharper at hitting the wires faster, more effectively and running campaigns that embrace new ideas and ways of working. In the course of the CM Porter Novelli team giving online and social media PR training, it has been clear that for many people things are happening so fast they can’t keep up with it. Only this week Twitter announced new, paid for services for business users that are under trial and every week new apps and platforms are created. Any business serious about its reputation has to be on the ball or be left behind.

However, there are some businesses who I believe should avoid social media like the plague. While it is a useful tool for monitoring opinion, it is potentially dangerous for some people to create a platform that will encourage their detractors to become more vocal. There are numerous articles about how important it is for everyone to use Twitter, blogs and the rest, but there are very few that advise on the potential pitfalls for organisations that should maybe not use it! We need only look at any online newspaper feed to see what the bored and lonely can say when they have nothing better to do. Imagine your local council traffic department announces “parking charges this year raise £20 million!” and what you might do with that and a few nifty hashtags.

Use of #fail coupled with a company’s name is increasingly the route to securing swift action over and above the traditional angry letter to the CEO. The grapevine is now full of #fail resulting in a phone call plus swift resolution within hours. There are some consumer-focused businesses which actively search for complaints on Twitter, in order to respond quickly, as they should. In our increasingly instant age, the first route for the disgruntled consumer is often social media without taking the trouble to contact the company first. Businesses should be wary of encouraging it. While it is a terrific way for companies to solve problems and get a gold star for customer service at the same time, it is perhaps not the best thing to advertise that this is a legitimate route to complain about a service. A business could be hostage to its own fortune if it lets it be known that the most effective way to complain is to use #fail #companyname. It might just be best to keep it quiet that it is out there checking the hashtags.

For these organisations maintaining PR control is important not because it limits freedom of speech, but because it keeps the floodgates firmly shut against negativity and potential damage to the brand or service. Freedom of speech is important and while we should never hold back from saying what we think, there is no need to make it easier! Rather, sticking to the good, solid traditional lines of communication while using social or online media only appropriately will ensure that messages are disseminated, but that the opportunities for tiresome twitterers to dwell on guilt and misery, are restricted. So while the new style of PR represents a coalition of everything that is new and funky, there still remains a place for the traditional. Well at least for the time being.

Angela Casey is MD at CM Porter Novelli.

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