In today's world, no one can afford to pass up an opportunity to tell their story. Employee engagement, customer goodwill and community support depend on it. We live in a world where things are moving fast; we've seen the news cycle accelerate from 24 hours to 24 seconds.
With the proliferation of the Internet on top of the traditional newspaper and broadcast media, people now have more choices than ever for how and where they get news. While inserting messages across all forms of media — traditional and social — certainly increases the opportunity to be heard, these channels are becoming increasingly noisy and cluttered. Every company is working to grab its piece of the media pie, and each can easily be drowned out by others doing the same.
To rise above the din, communications must be innovative. Enter social media. Despite its relatively recent arrival on the scene, social media has dramatically changed interpersonal communications. It quickly spread to business, where companies have been quick to embrace the medium. From Web sites and blogs to Facebook and Twitter, news has increasingly become a participatory sport. Companies sharing news and messages now must expect an almost instant response from online audiences, and must be prepared to join in the conversation.
While it may be tempting to jump right in and "tweet" on Twitter or "friend" on Facebook, there are reasoned steps to consider. Fully preparing to be both proactive and reactive in these online conversations requires humility, patience and a willingness to learn. Engaging in the online space is an acquired skill.
This is largely because social media is inherently a two-way street. Companies can glean great value in listening to what stakeholders are saying about their brands online instead of simply pushing out the news. Thus, the first phase of this learning process is to monitor the conversations taking place about your company or its interests. Once you have a solid grasp of this dialogue, you can then begin to walk down the two-way street. Podcasts, videos and enriched content on your internet site can provide valuable space for telling your story. As you move toward social networking like Facebook and Twitter, however, you create a feedback loop with your stakeholders.
Once you have listened to others and shared your own insights, you are ready to fully engage online. This means maintaining relationships with others online in the form of blogger relationships, sponsorships and even advocacy. Working to engage online influencers and online communities means providing lots of rich content and taking the lead in demonstrating thought leadership, not just a page on Facebook, though an active presence on social networks like Facebook and Twitter is important in being a part of the conversation. For example, there are lots of bloggers who share an interest in topics like waste and recycling. If you are able to identify and develop a relationship with these bloggers, you create an opportunity for learning and information exchange. To develop the relationship, your content must be interesting, informative and dynamic. You might share videos and photos with bloggers or social networks. The online world is always in need of rich discussion, and you can be a thought leader by sharing your perspective.
A word of caution: Individuals speaking out online, for the most part, have nothing to lose. They're using social media to share personal opinions in their own voice. In some instances, the online format grants them complete anonymity. However, for companies, your brand and reputation are on the line. Employees, customers and community members alike will carefully scrutinize everything you say, and they will not hold back.
But remember, when participating in social media, you have an opportunity to directly respond to detractors when the situation is appropriate. And you can also speak to your supporters. Ultimately, by doing so in a measured and responsible manner, you will have more control over your online reputation.
Lynn Brown is vice president and spokesperson, Corporate Communications, for Houston-based Waste Management Inc. She joined the company in May 2005 and oversees a team that supports internal and external communications, as well as reputation management.
Want to Know More?
Lynn Brown will speak in further detail on this issue at the "Environmentalists. Every Day. — Communicate More Effectively Using Online Social Networking" session at WasteExpo on Tuesday, May 4. The session, which is part of the Community Relations Track, will run from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.