Trust Me, Social Media is Here to Stay!

I moderated a panel today at The Empire Club of Canada on Social Media and Corporate Trust which included Peter Aceto, CEO of ING Direct Canada,  Suzanne Fallender, manager of CSR for Intel USA and Tom Watson, senior writer with Canadian Business magazine. Thanks to some lively points of view, and sharp questions from the audience, the panel was deemed a success.

Here are the remarks I made to kick off the panel . . . sorry for the length:)

It is self-evident that trust in companies has declined significantly over the past few years, although if you want to argue the point I can direct you to any number of studies, including H&K’s own corporate reputation surveys which make the case.

It has also become manifest that what can be called social tools – YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter and blogging among others – have been catalysts for impugning corporate behavior (just ask Domino’s pizza, McNeil Consumer Healthcare, Taser Intl., Continental Airlines or Dalhousie University). What is less obvious is how these tools can be used by organizations and companies to build or rebuild trust.

There are a number of hypotheses about social media and trust which I hope we can test in our short panel discussion. By doing so I think we will get a better understanding of what those of us who manage reputation both inside and outside organizations have to think and do differently to be effective.

I would like to get things going by posing a few axiomatic beliefs of my own about social media. My point of view comes from four or five years of blogging, engaging in social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, providing counsel to clients on transforming crisis, reputation and issue management strategies through the analysis and application of new social tools, teaching new directions in communications at two Canadian universities and discussion online and in person with people much smarter than me.

Let me start by arguing that companies and organizations today are facing what can only be called a sea change in the universe of idea generation, news gathering and information sharing whose only precedent may be the impact that the creation of the printing press had on industrial society after the 15th century.

I can think of at least three things that social media change that can be both obstacles to and facilitators of creating trust, and make many of our past reputation management approaches obsolete:

First . . . the concepts of personal expression and friends first

In his recent book, Here Comes Everybody, NYU professor Clay Shirky says that “We are living through the largest increase in human expressive capability in history.” The midwife of this expression is the ability of anyone to post or publish anything, anytime and anywhere and to have an audience for this expression. Now the audience may be small and may only be an audience of friends, but you can never be sure that it will stay small or that it may not persuade a much larger network of people or dispose them to act.

It is important to recognize that this is not about the technology that makes interaction possible but about the anatomy of the interaction. It is an interaction that is consistent with our oral tradition of politics and storytelling. Like 17th century coffee houses, social media are now the place to assemble, to exchange ideas and if desired to organize action/dissent.

One of the most difficult things for senior executives and communications professionals to get our minds around about this change is that our strategies now require people more than communications products, because the expectation now is for personal relationship and responsiveness and not just facts and information.

Second . . . group formation

Clay Shirky also goes on to say that “By making it easier for groups to self-assemble and for individuals to contribute to group effort without requiring formal management (and its attendant overhead), (social media) tools have radically altered the old limits on the size, sophistication, and scope of unsupervised effort.” In other words, we now have what my colleague – Brendan Hodgson – calls empowered detractors and supporters – individuals and small groups who can challenge a point of view, force transparency, expose malfeasance and also become allies and friends.

What empowers them is the ease with which they can assemble in small but potent networks using social media. And because of the low barriers to participation and action, power increasingly resides in the hands of the committed and the concerned.  The Motrin Mom’s campaign is one recent example in which an angry individual used social tools like YouTube, Flickr and Twitter to defeat an advertising campaign.

Third . . . A vastly different “news” dynamic

Because news can come from anywhere, and increasingly frequently comes to the public consciousness not through the traditional news infrastructure but through social networks, listening, vigilance and conversation are more important than they have ever been in the past.

At the same time, although circulation for newspapers is declining and publications disappearing, our appetite for news (albeit news that we want to choose rather than have imposed) keeps growing. That means companies that want to affect the way they are seen will have to be prepared to provide a steady flow of news and information – supported by crystal -clear conversation and dialogue – rather than waiting only for what in the past they have judged as “worthy” of being released.

So what do these three observations mean for strategies meant to sustain, defend or build trust in corporations and organizations? I have at least four ideas:

Communication strategies that depended on influencing reporters in mainstream news infrastructure now must include ways to incite interest and engagement from a range of individuals, groups and networks. 

Communication strategies that depended on the publication of information must now be scrapped in favour of strategies that find and/or build communities of interest and small networks of advocates, champions or apostles.

Strategies meant to influence government or specific social behaviors or even encourage buying must now recognize that the new backbone of influence is the small – but highly connected – networks of ordinary people. Media “impressions” – the historic but oh so inadequate measure of the success of communications programs by counting how many people likely had access to a certain media piece – just doesn’t tell us much anymore.

And finally . . . Generic brand building strategies should now be supplemented – okay maybe even replaced – by programs that start from people, that engage networks, and that reveal personality because as a Deloitte consultant once wrote “It’s harder to distrust a person than it is to distrust a corporation.”

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