Three Rules for Corporate Branding with Social Media

Social media provides very attractive new channels to communicate and build relationships. The possibilities are expanding, and it is appropriate to contemplate how they can enhance corporate reputation and visibility. However, using social media can be risky, and great care must be taken to use the medium effectively.

The Dilemma

By its very nature, social media is intended to be a back and forth dialogue with mass audiences. This is an alluring premise for consumer brands that are constantly looking for ways to expand their awareness and consumer engagement. In fact, social media offers a real time conversation with consumers that can attract new “users” and create buzz about a product or service that can grow organically and exponentially. It can become an intersection where personal and business information intermix and relationships with a consumer brand can really strengthen and grow.

However, corporate brands are primarily built in a different manner. Corporate branding demands focus and staying on message. Once thought through, the ideal corporate communications program carefully develops and manages content to ensure primary audiences receive the messages the company intends to put forward.

The informal, interactive nature of social media inherently presents a risk to corporate communications, as the content cannot be controlled in the same manner as with traditional forms of communication. This can create potential liability for companies, and even worse, confusion about what a corporate brand stands for. And when companies are perceived as seeking to control the social media conversation or keep it one-sided, this can easily backfire and create negative publicity.

In an effort to protect their corporate brand and reputation, many companies are formalizing rules about the use of social media by employees. One example is the Los Angeles Times, which recently updated their Social Media Rule Book to regulate and control the use of social media and thereby maintain corporate credibility. They, like others, are wary of employees casually using social media as a forum for putting forth uncensored commentary that can misrepresent the company’s positioning on various issues. This is especially true for businesses in regulated industries, such as healthcare and financial services, where there can be serious consequences.

Three important rules

Here are three basic rules when exploring and testing the use of social media as part of a corporate communications program:

1. Appoint a social media czar. Create a specific role for someone to become the ‘social media gatekeeper’ within the corporation. Empower this person to research each of the five major social media channels – Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube – to see how they work and who is doing it well. In addition to the social media sites themselves, there is no shortage of “how-to” information online, as well as seminars, to learn how businesses are using these different channels, tracking results and monitoring online chatter about specific brands.

The social media gatekeeper should also be responsible for developing social media policy for employees as well as guidelines for developing and approving social media initiatives.

2. Get to know the social media preferences of each audience. People use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other channels for different purposes and to varying degrees. In addition, despite the impressive statistics of people joining these communities, there are still quite a few people sitting on the sidelines or signed up but not consistently participating.

Take the business media, for example. While many are avid users of social media, journalists constantly tell us that they do not want to be “pitched” story ideas through these channels. They see the mass communications aspect of social networking as a turn-off. Rather, journalists want corporate communicators to present well-developed, customized story ideas that demonstrate a specific understanding of what they write about and when. Social networks are not accommodating in this way. Recently, for example, we pitched BusinessWeek in a 2,100-character email, which resulted in a profile piece for our client. Clearly, Twitter’s 140-character limit would not have worked in this effort.

Use research to understand how each important audience uses social media, if at all. Whether you are speaking to the media, customers, prospects, new recruits, industry analysts, investors, etc., you can easily use research to understand if they want to hear from you via social media, and what types of content will engage them.

3. Develop focused social media plans. Like any other corporate communications or corporate marketing campaign involving PR, advertising, direct response or special events, social media needs a strategy and plan. Each social media initiative must be grounded in a strategy with clear objectives, target audiences, key messages, tactics, metrics and timetable.

The key is to start modestly and keep it simple by focusing on just one channel first and establishing achievable goals. Consider establishing a LinkedIn presence that can be used as a recruiting tool; using Twitter to let followers know when new, timely information, such as a white paper or video that they might find useful, is posted on your company website; or setting up a Facebook page to bring together people in your industry who share an interest in a cause that your company endorses. Just keep in mind that whatever social media path you choose, it will open the door to a two-way conversation that will need to be maintained on the corporate end. Therefore, part of your planning needs to factor in the time, effort and resources required to be responsive.

Corporate communicators must continually figure out how to navigate the opportunities presented by the exploding social media channels, while at the same time protecting corporate brand and reputation. Hopefully, the principles above will provide some guidance in addressing these challenges.


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