Beyond social media–getting back to basics

June 4, 2009

I confess, like most others in public relations, I have been completely caught up in the whirlwind around social media and its impact on public relations, marketing and crisis management. But once in a while you have to step back and say what is really important here? How does this fit in the bigger picture of business and organizational momentum and even beyond that, to personal life issues?

I’ve been at the marketing, business development, strategic planning, public relations and crisis management game for over 30 years. I look back over the more-than-wonderful experience I have had of working with executives and leaders from small one person shops to executives of some of the largest corporations and government agencies in the world. And I will tell you that experience that there is one word that is far and beyond the most important word in defining success: relationships.

We live in a high tech world the scope of which I could never have imagined in the late 1970s when I ended my college teaching career and began my business career in communications and software. But John Naisbitt was absolutely right when he connected high tech and high touch. The more we move into a technology driven world, he said, the more there would be demand for the personal interactions that lie at the heart of commerce and all of life. The business of living and the life of business is about people. That is equally true of government agencies. When things work well you can invariably point to a remarkably small number of very high value relationships that operate at the heart of that success. When things don’t go well, it is because those key relationships are weak, broken or missing.

I say remarkably few for a reason. In 1997 I wrote a book–now out of print–called Friendship Marketing which focused on this issue of strategic relationships. I did informal research in talking to literally hundreds of businesses–frequently at conferences where I was speaking and asked them this question: How many relationships does your business absolutely depend on so that if you were to lose one of them it would cause you to lose sleep at night. I won’t keep you in suspense. I came to a magic number and that number is 6. Sure there are examples where the number is more than that–but it always, always ended up being a number that was shocking to the person providing the information because of how small it really was.

The meaning for the marketing and business development strategy that I advised was simple. If you depend now on a very small number of key relationships and you know that if you grow to ten or 100 times your current size, you will still depend on a remarkably few very important people, who might they be? You can identify them. By name. You can find them. You can find their contact information. You can find where they go to dinner, play golf, go to church. These people are reachable. Some easier than others obviously, but the point is you can find them and identify them. The power of this for marketing is absolutely immense and I can tell you stories of how that concept played out in marketing strategies I recommended.

But this is about crisis management. I always start in talking with a client about their preparations or their response capability by asking: who are the people whose opinion about you matters most for your future? For a federal agency, that answer may very well be key members of a Congressional committee who decides on agency funding. More to the point, it probably comes to key staff people of the Senators or Congress members who sit on that committee. For a non-profit it probably comes down to key donors and those who influence the key donors. For a business it certainly includes critical customers but also shareholders, key managers, their families, regulators, and perhaps leaders in the community where they operate. It is usually not difficult to come up with a list of 50, 25 or even 6 people who really matter a lot to the future.

The fact that this kind of strategy does not typically play into public relation’s peoples thinking about crisis preparation continues to surprise me. The mantra I have been repeating about crisis preparation is this: fast, direct, transparent. When I say direct, I mean DIRECT to those whose opinion matters most of the future of the organization.

Social media? Important yes, but I am believing it is more and more a huge distraction from the real business of building brands and reputation management which is far more effective and fundamental. The real business is identifying those strategic relationships, evaluation the value they place on you and what you do, and doing all you can to strengthen that relationship even while you define the key relationships you need for your future.

(By the way, I want to thank my wife for helping me pull back a bit and focus on what is important here. I love you hon.)


2 Responses to “Beyond social media–getting back to basics”

  1. Patrice Cloutier Says:

    Hello Gerald …
    Interesting post once again … I believe we need to look past the hype on social media, in particular Twitter. We need to focus on its role within whatever outreach efforts an organization has going. Segmented audiences demand different channels of comms and engagement.

    It’s proving particularly challenging for me right now in my new role planning communications around the security arrangements for the 2010 G8 summit here in Ontario …

    Transient nature of residents in the summer (the event’s in June) and other concerns …building a relationship with these audiences will be key to our success ..

    so thanks again for giving us some food for thought …

  2. Kasey Skala Says:

    I completely agree. I wrote a post about this a few days back touching on similar points. While it’s great to become familiar with social media and get involved – it does have its benefits – we shouldn’t put all our eggs in one basket. I think a lot of people are getting involved with the notion that SM is replacing traditional PR, when it fact it’s simply another tool to use.

    We need to take a step back and touch up on the basics – the foundation of PR. Social media isn’t for everyone and every client, so if we’re focusing all our efforts on SM, we aren’t doing anything for ourselves or our clients.

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