TREND.iNSIGHT: Social Communications Part II

TRENDAFRiCA August 20, 2013

A TREND. iNSIGHT report compiled by TREND. Publishing Editor Louise Marsland (@trendlives) brought to you in association with: FleishmanHillard and Lion’s Wing Brand Communications.

1Lionswing FL

Also see: Part I: Disrupting PR


There is currently a green paper ready to go before parliament to regulate the public relations industry. The process emerged from within PRISA as an initiative, and evolved into an independent body that will most likely replace PRISA at the end of the process.

It has been a two year process of engagement to date involving all stakeholders in the industry to draft a coherent plan to regulate the industry and professionalise it.

The rationale behind it is to enhance and promote the professional status of well-trained, competent PR professionals.

As Bridget von Holdt, head of the PRISA PR Consultants Chapter and the key instigator of the green paper, explains: “Reputational risk is the most fundamental and compelling reason for organisations to want to employ only professionals to be the guardian of their reputation, brand and good name. Why would companies want to put the reputation, image and good name of their organisation in the hands of someone who had no, or inadequate competence, qualifications or experience relevant to protecting, building and advancing the reputation on which the organisation trades, and on which its future business success depended?”

She says the PR and communication management profession has repeatedly been brought into disrepute in recent years due to the conduct of unregistered practitioners.

“Prisa has not always succeeded in sanctioning those that act in contravention of its Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, the Institute has nevertheless made great inroads in the last two years, increasing its membership base and working closely with government to include government communicators in Prisa. The Institute has all the means and frameworks in place to move to legislated self-regulation as this green paper will show.”

Von Holdt says it is important to note that this proposed legislation will not prevent a person from executing their own public relations or communication activities on behalf of themselves in a personal capacity. Any member of the public can launch a communication campaign on any issue or cause they may feel passionate about. Any organisation can promote and market their own business.

“What a legislated profession means is that communication professionals – those who seek to derive income from providing communication services on behalf of, or in the employ of, others and who also wish to represent themselves as a professional, whether via offering counsel or representing an organisation -  should be registered in terms of the legislation and adhere to minimum standards, qualifications, competencies and levels of experience.

“We further seek to ensure that when a person in a category of registration seeks to do work at a higher level than that for which he or she is registered, that this is done in conjunction with and under the supervision of a category of person who is recognised as competent to perform the work and derive income from that.”

Von Holdt believes the registration of a PR professional is in the public interest as it will enable professionals to register according to the category of competence and experience, indicating the work which they are competent to perform. But it will require continuous education and the upgrading of skills.

And this is what the task team – set up two years ago, spearheaded by PRISA and representing all communication sets from Government to sponsorships, PR educators, the IABC, etc. – set out to do: investigate how to legislate the public relations industry to give it more credibility and come up with something that lays down the minimum education requirement to be called a public relations practitioner, registering on an annual basis with a legislative body – managed by PRISA initially, but evolving into a new ‘society of public relations practitioners’.

The task team investigated other registered professional bodies, from engineers to doctors, to look at how they set about registering the PR profession.

“A huge amount of work has gone into this process. It is going to be formalised, hence the preparation of the green paper has been quite intense.” Von Holdt, who has been in the profession for 30 years and a member of PRISA for 20 years, said the document needed to go to parliament to lend it the gravitas and legal status that was needed to impose professional standards on the industry.

“This is one of the things I need to see before I retire: the professionalising of our profession. I would like to see it in practice. It is not going to happen overnight, but I would like to see people who have studied public relations reap the benefit of their studies.”

She agrees that the term ‘public relations’ has started to die, with more talk of communication management and the use of reputation management terminology. “Public relations is seen as only being about the press release. The definition of public relations is so much more than that.”

The aligning of communication with management in South Africa was probably driven by the JSE, which required more professional communication with stakeholders and journalists and that is when the profession in South Africa underwent its first evolution in the early 1990s, she says.

“Public relations had to become more creative in selling stories, as it became a popular profession and journalists had all these people popping stories into their fax machines.”

Two decades later and the digital era has seen the integration of the traditional PR campaign, eliminating any distinction between above-the-line, below-the-line traditional media and campaigns, with 90% of the entries into the annual PRISM Awards featuring a digital element.

Then the King III commission elevated public relations to the boardroom as stakeholder management must be managed at executive board level and should form part of the board agenda.

“It was a huge achievement for the public relations industry, but we haven’t capitalised on it as much as we should have,” Von Holdt says.

And that is not the only change, with communication now having to happen on a 24 hour basis. “In an ideal world technology was supposed to make things easier. We work harder than ever, we are forced to communicate on a 24 hour basis as our different audiences are communicating all the time. Also, the message doesn’t disappear, you have to continuously manage that reputation.”

The relevance of traditional PR principles still stands, according to Von Holdt. These are:

  1. Relationships still form the most important element of public relations because you have to influence the target audience to read your story and buy your product. You cannot hide behind a computer or a tablet. You have to build on that relationship and build the confidence of the consumer that you are talking to.
  2. To be able to tell a story, as short and sweetly as possible, is also important. Whether it is in a tweet or on your website, people have to get a grasp of what you need to say.
  3. You have to understand what the audience is consuming.
Kevin Welman

Kevin Welman

FleishmanHillard is one of the biggest PR agencies in South Africa. Managing director Kevin Welman has worked for the group for 17 years and agrees that the changes in the last three to four years have been immense.

“But the essence of what we do hasn’t changed: we have to deliver a message for a client to an audience. That audience is now accepting that message in a different way and social media is delivering it in such different ways.”

He thinks the word ‘digital’ should be outlawed as it is really about “social listening”.

The playing field has also expanded with the advent of social media tools and platforms and everyone from above-the-line advertising agencies, to digital agencies, to social media gurus, to large scale traditional media and niche PR agencies staking their claim.

Welman admits that with all the players now in this “social communications space”, that it must be terrifying for clients.

“Successful agencies have to understand what they are trying to do and you need to know what you are not doing.

“We are in charge of delivering the client’s message to audiences. We are a global public relations agency. If the best channel is print media, then that is the way to go. If it is to build a community around a product, then that is the way to go. Of course, our range of skills has to be much wider now and I can understand why smaller PR agencies are battling to meet clients’ needs in this regard.”

He says PR agencies cannot put a communication plan in front of a client without understanding their business.

“We went as far as building Twitter based tools to understand more about our clients and the people tweeting about their brands, and the kind of questions being asked online.

Janine Hills

Janine Hills

“When we hire people, we talk to them about their impression about a brand. To think about it, to have an opinion, to see the client’s business challenge.”

They now ask clients what customer experience they provide, where their customers get their leads from, how they hear about the client – questions they would not have asked five years ago.

Janine Hills, CEO of Vuma Reputation Management believes there has been “an awakening” in the communication industry and it is tied to the increasing demands placed on marketers.

“Chief marketing officers are not skilled enough in business to bridge the gap themselves between marketing communication and business. Many CMOs don’t understand the nature of the business. I don’t believe the industry has taken the time to spend ‘a day in the life’ of their employees – gone into factories, down the mines, onto the shop floor…”

Reputation management is the new black

There has been a shift in the focus of public relations over the last few years to reputation management. Reputation management sits at the top of the list of PR services. But it is becoming more than a core service and about everything a public relations agency does.

Of course the debate over which marketing communications discipline is responsible for social media – a core component of reputation management these days – has been around since social media, with PR, marketers, brand agencies, ad agencies, digital agencies and customer service, all having a finger on the keyboard. Corporate reputation is the keyword here.

As PR Daily warns:As more businesses recognize the opportunities (and threats) that social media present to their corporate reputation, and the demand from stakeholders for direct engagement, they are reaching out to PR agencies and practitioners for support. PR pros, who have long been responsible for managing the dialogue between an organization and the public, will emerge as trendsetters in the social space by providing valuable communications counsel and achieving results that directly impact clients’ bottom lines.”

Welman says it doesn’t matter where the uncontrolled conversation of social media sits. It is all about the PESO model: Paid, Earned, Shared and Owned media. When they get a new client, they look at all the channels they use.

“We don’t want to play in every environment. But I truly believe you can never look at earned media in isolation to the other spaces, which is why you have to truly understand it.”

Paid media is obviously mostly advertising; earned media covers social media, company blogs with an engagement platform; the shared space can encompass brochures, marketing material, blogs, etc. – things a company shares with their communities; and the owned space is what the company has control over, such as websites, Facebook page, first tweets, the CEO blog, annual report and so on.

Welman says it is important to look at what the through-the-line full service agency is doing, what the digital agency is doing and look at the gaps and address them: ‘Are you creating engagement? Are you bringing people to the client’s world?’

Reputation management is part of risk management and should form part of internal business plans, says Hills.

“The role of reputation management has changed dramatically from the media sphere to being more about integrating communications into the business sphere. We see reputation management as a business tool, which is part of the organisation,” Hills explains.

One of the most important tasks is to try get business people to take the lead in the steps required to build a reputation, Hills adds. Reputation management tools deal with all aspects of a company’s risk management, from community consciousness – what companies are doing for a community if there is operational risk, to how your employees get to work. And in the case of a disaster – are there clinics nearby and what condition are they in?

Vuma also talks to companies about their responsibility towards their employees (i.e., are you creating future leaders in the community?); skills development; investment in education (i.e., to create the next generation of engineers for your mine); the standards being set to build the reputation of long term involvement by a company.

“It is about investing in your brand,” Hills reiterates.

Lion’s Wing Brand Communications managing director, Greg Forbes believes convergence is where public relations is going and that reputation management is becoming the pinnacle of everything – across every discipline.

“PR is going to start directing and playing an intricate role across all disciplines.”

Forbes talks about an “end-audience perspective” where technology has moved to a point where the end audience has the ability to consolidate information. He references Google Glass, already being trialed and due for consumer launch end-2013.

He believes that Google Glass will open the door for communications singularity. “Google Glass is a technology which will be the conduit for the individual to access any and all information across all channels. Everything is being filtered and funnelled down to what the consumer will be able to access at any given time.

“I, as an individual will have access to all information, regardless of where the content came from, to make choices. I’ll be able to stand in front of a shelf and get information instantly on products and the companies that make them. I’ll be able to stand in front of two restaurants and download the reviews instantaneously.”

Forbes says this means that advertising and communication has to work with the full reputation of a business.

“It is a huge paradigm shift. That is why PR will not be what it once was, advertising will not be what it once was. Companies will be forced to make sure their reputation is up to scratch at all times and sales will no longer be based just on price and emotional appeal, but on reputation.”

There is research that backs up Forbes’ comments: www.TREND.watching.com says the future belongs to ‘clean slate brands’ – brands that are so new, there is no scandal attached, no legacy issues and they can begin from a higher moral platform that some of their competitors with a rich brand heritage. They are brands that are “born clean”.

This is because younger consumers in particular perceive the newer brands to be more responsive, more transparent and without any legacy of poor business practice. This of course discounts traditional brand principles of trusted brand legacy and symbols with a strong heritage.

Another reason is declining trust in business, according to Havas. As www.TREND.watching.com outlines: “Simple, lean, transparent operations are what characterises the operations, supply chain, design and consumer interaction of clean slate brands. Consumers are particularly attracted to such brands after the legion of scandals, from the banking sector to horsemeat in food products and large scale business failures.”

Plainly put: consumers want brands that haven’t “sinned”. In fact, 64% of global consumers think most companies are only trying to be responsible to improve their image and are not really sincere (Havas Media 2011).

As Sarah Skerik, PR Newswire’s vice president of social media says, on reputation: “Today’s buyers (both consumer and B2B) conduct extensive research before contacting vendors. If a brand doesn’t have a good reputation, positive reviews and strong search and social visibility, it will be eliminated from consideration well before the prospect gets serious about buying.  Instead of building episodic awareness, the new imperative for PR is to develop on-going brand visibility and a strong reputation.”

“As communication professionals, we know the importance of reputation management to an organisation’s bottom line,” says marcusbrewster chairman, Marcus Brewster. “The global economic crisis was simply a very extreme example of what happens to share prices when public confidence is eviscerated.

“In our own research last year, we established that company reputation was the single most important qualifier of choice as to why clients appointed us as their PR agency of record. Company reputation far outpaced determinants like quality of service and low cost.

Galia Kerbel

Galia Kerbel

Greater Than managing director, Galia Kerbel believes that the key role for PR firms today is to create a digital communication and reputation management strategy within their offering to clients. “Where it becomes tricky is in being able to identify which of their stakeholders are using digital channels and what these are, develop the appropriate ways of communicating and engaging with them online, and then they having the skills to implement.”

Kerbel believes a new model needs to be developed where digital agencies and PR companies are integrated, both sharing and benefiting from the skills of each other.

“The agency of the future will have all its account managers and team members trained in how social media and digital channels work (if they don’t have that already). As crafters of the brand and company messages and custodians of their reputation, PR companies must take the lead in this arena.”

As to what PR means in today’s context, PR Powerhouse managing director Lebo Madiba, says it is true that PR has always felt like the “step-sister” of other disciplines in the industry.

“PR has been dying to be part of the marketing mix. Today’s environment is giving PR the opportunity to really be part of it all, and even sit at the core of a marketing strategy. We have always been the masters of creating messages and conversations. Social gives us a chance to merge message/conversation with creativity – creating a fit for us into a world (creative world) that previously battled to understand PR’s role.

“PR hasn’t changed, our platforms have changed. It is still a strategic tool. In defining it, we have to consider both online conversations and the boardroom conversations – whether it is online/social or in traditional media, it is still about creating perceptions and managing reputation… I don’t think that we need a new definition. The only thing that has changed is that our format of communication is changing from monologue to dialogue,” Madiba says.

Says Forbes: “We are moving towards a communications singularity. Regardless of what discipline you specialise in, you have to have a good understanding of where you fit in and how your task overlaps with everything else. When someone develops an ad campaign, you have to do media placement and reputation management. PR agencies will be placing ads.”

The question now is, will PR agencies which have the media relationships and can secure earned media content – become more sexy to clients than the ad agencies which are more used to buying influence in the paid media sector.

Forbes sees PR agencies evolving to become consultancies like McKinsey, where research will be key.

“That will make us survive, that is where the meat lies. In the future, where reputations are so incredibly important, we are the reputation management consultants.”

What it boils down to, says Forbes, is that companies cannot do one thing and say another. There is such a great degree of transparency of information that people can get access to, that companies and people can no longer be unethical.

The open and unmanaged dialogue on social media of course opens up a whole new ‘can of worms’ and if you are going to engage on social media, you need to understand and respect the rules of engagement with social media, Hills says. Vuma represented the Pistorius family during the Oscar Pistorius bail hearing earlier this year.

“Allow the ‘lid’ to open, but engage and be able to educate at the same time of engagement, taking things offline when you need to. Through the Oscar Pistorius process, people attacked me personally, so I went offline and picked up the phone and engaged with them directly, media included.

“One mustn’t take things personally – reputation management is about protecting the brands and the value of the brands. Allow the chatter, but monitor the chatter, respect the chatter. Then ask ‘what are we going to do’ and take those learnings and improve on what the company is offering.”

Reputation management is about respecting and understanding the law behind social media, as well as media law.

“Media law is becoming an important part of reputation management,” Hills says. “We have alliance partners with legal firms.”

Hills adds that search engine optimisation (SEO) is also a very important part of reputation management. “Your website is becoming so crucial. Your articles printed online are vital. More important than print, so SEO is so important to position a company’s website at the top of search terms, rather than articles written about them. What is the point of doing great advertising and great PR, but when you do a search, you can’t find anything positive about that company? SEO is so important in reputation management.”

This is Hills advice to communicators:

  1. Client service: understand your stakeholders – the media is one. Build relationships – but you have to constantly work at it. Too often I see young communicators coming through who don’t go into the effort to build relationships. They don’t do the personal investment in their own skills. Understand the business fully with your client. Don’t leave it at the formula:  three interviews a month/ six interviews a month. The key thing is to have the depth of skill in the organisation – have you met the CSO? The CEO? Don’t just write press releases without understanding the business.
  2. Deliverables: this comes from CEOs. Each account director has to understand the deliverables. You have to respect that business is under pressure worldwide. So if you still have money coming to you, it is a privilege. You need to know how to make that money work for the client. We are in a tough period right now. Build your personal reputation and the reputation of the organisation.
  3. Upskilling: it is a continuous process, the learning never stops.
  4. Integration: communicators need the ears of the board, they need to integrate into the business. Too many communicators still think that reputation management is only crisis management. It is about everything else too. There is definitely an opportunity for communicators to step up. Social media campaigns are fantastic, but have you read your audience? Do you understand what the company is going through?


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