Once upon a time, public relations was a relatively straightforward part of your organization. Your association released news relevant to your members and industries or you responded to incoming inquiries around a trending story or moment of crisis. The number of media contacts seemed more finite – and the number of contacts at your association was likely one.
Then about 10 years ago, social media introduced a new element for companies and associations. It was a new, open way to communicate with your members and the industry. Members of the media may have been following you then, but the pace and level of use by both media and your staff were much lower.
Oh, how times have changed.
The present-day media environment is moving that information very quickly. And the public – including your association stakeholders – can access both factual and non-factual information much more quickly and from many sources. Similarly, the media can contact unofficial spokespeople and even excerpt social media or blog posts directly, without your input and knowledge.
What this means to your association and membership is that you are not in control of your narrative. Without proper planning, the left hand of your public relation efforts may not be in sync with the right hand of your digital media presence. However, there is a way to bring these together with a well-planned strategy.
But first, you and your leadership need to understand that digital media has democratized the way journalists and your members receive information. This means everyone on your team must use a unified approach. This also means that you cannot ignore the public, digital conversation happening about your association and industry whether or not you participate. Think of it this way, you should want to know what your staff and members are saying across platforms and especially what they’re saying to journalists.
Next, you need a firm grasp of what comprises your digital platforms. Public relations has long been about press releases you issue and maybe a media page on your website. Digital media, on the other hand, is much more diverse and dynamic. There are your “owned” platforms, such as your website, your mass email campaigns and a blog. There are also “shared” social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube. On those, you publish your content on another’s digital space. There’s also a variety of other spaces where your association may participate, but where publishing information is not the primary objective. These include discussion forums and review websites, such as Reddit and GlassDoor.com. You can’t do it all, but you should understand how these sites work and make certain somebody is monitoring them and reporting back.
All of this reorientation will require a certain acclimation to a new world order by your staff and leadership. Rather than acting as keeper of the association’s brand and message, thus controlling the public narrative and media distribution, now you are a participant in a larger conversation. As such, you’ll need to listen as much or more than you communicate.
Once you understand the power of digital media, it’s time to consider how this new knowledge might change communication with journalists. For starters, use digital media as a way to monitor the sentiment of your membership and industry before you make an announcement or react to a crisis. You will also need to make sure a staffer or board member doesn’t preempt you with an announcement or leak. Policies and consensus building on strategy will help control the flow of information. You can also use social media to read the tea leaves of which journalists might be interested in your message and how their disposition is on a given topic.
Some social media users and bloggers may not be affiliated with a traditional print or broadcast media outlet but are influential with your association members or industry. In fact, where the number of reporters in your area or specialty may have decreased, it’s likely the quantity of online influencers has risen. Do your research and get to know them.
Crisis communication is an area of particular importance. When sensitive information becomes public and emotions run high, there’s a natural tendency for hasty decision-making, incomplete reporting and a panicked constituency. Sometimes, we create a crisis by saying something on social media that’s derogatory or that can be misinterpreted (even our personal accounts) and gets sent into cyberspace. This is why education and a plan are essential.
Having a well-thought-out strategy in place that’s been built by consensus and explained to all internal stakeholders is perhaps the most important thing your association can do to build and protect your brand. While these can take many forms, the most successful strategy for PR and digital media will include a hierarchical list of on-and-offline approved spokespeople, protocols for disseminating information in a crisis (and what qualifies as one), specifications for what kinds of information and terms will be monitored online and by whom.
Everyday brand-building considerations must also be outlined, such as your association’s online personality, the platforms you emphasize, the tone and cadence of your posts, how you measure growth and engagement as well as how they stack up with your offline goals. This can be researched and developed by third-party professionals or by your own team. Just make sure that it gets done sooner than later.
Gone is the time when just having a website, blog and social media accounts is enough. We now live in an era when we must engage regularly to stay relevant to our stakeholders, including the media. To get a sense of the importance of digital media to your association, ask your members and the industry leaders you serve. Are they on social media for more than leisure? Next time you have a conversation with your go-to reporter, ask whether social media provides story tips. You might be surprised at the answer. ●
Author David Wyatt is a Director with Elizabeth Christian Public Relations (ECPR), which acquired Wyatt Brand, Inc., the company he co-founded in 2006. He has been a speaker at TSAE’s New Ideas Annual Conference and Tech Talks.
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