Public Relations is the art of influencing perceptions, opinions and behaviour through editorial, or ‘earned media’ as opposed to through advertising. PR used to be primarily about achieving media coverage in order to achieve the desired goals, but the media industry is changing rapidly because of advances in technology. These days the scope for PR is now much wider than ever before.
PR is now about generating content that people will use and share. That content could be a news release or story idea that journalists will write about, but this is now just one strand of modern PR. The content could equally be video, photos, audio, infographics, web apps, microsites, social media content, articles, blogs, whitepapers, or discussions in online forums.
Digital technology and social media has blown the PR toolkit wide open, so that a company can now bypass traditional media altogether if they want, and talk directly to their target audience.
Any business, whether it is B2C or B2B, needs to consider all strands of PR when creating a strategy to meet its objectives. More often than not, the objective is to generate business growth, in which case a combination of tools is required, not just media relations.
Increasingly, business growth is focussed on search engine optimisation so that people can find you easily in the online world. If SEO is important to your business, then modern PR is integral to that. The combination of tactics mentioned above, particularly generating online copy, social media activity and online coverage all contribute significantly to boosting natural search rankings.
So what is PR? Not what it used to be, that’s for sure. PR is where communication meets technology to raise awareness of your business and influence what people think of it.
I attended the news:rewired conference recently, which was an excellent take on the state of digital journalism. If you didn’t already realise it, mobile devices and tablets and changing the way that people consume news and journalism. This is resulting in new audiences coming to journalism and a change in the pattern of consumption throughout the day. For example, people accessing content via desktop computers peaks at lunchtime, whereas in the evening it is via tablets. However, I want to focus here on the concept that journalists are becoming brands.
We all know that the media industry is in a bit of a state. One of the most fascinating assertions from the conference is that part of a journalist’s role is to bring people to their journalism. I think this is absolutely right.
Digital is now the primary focus for most news outlets – both The Guardian and Channel 4 said that ‘digital comes first’. Crucially, all journalists are now writing for the web and the printed products are taking a back seat. This means that all journalists are now responsible not only for creating the product, but also for marketing it too.
So, to perform their role effectively, all journalists have to be adept at social media marketing, effectively building their own online brand, which contributes to the reflective glow towards the publication or organisation.
To be honest, it was very refreshing to hear, and I think about time, considering that this is what we have been doing in PR for years! (Memo to journalists that simply tweet links to their stories: this is not an effective use of social media!)
Digital audiences are promiscuous and you have to fight for them – I can see more and more journalists and publishers learning this harsh lesson. Journalist Joanna Geery from The Guardian (which is losing a lot of money right now) recognised that they don’t know what makes people come back and that they need to understand their audience better. I think that Joanna personally does a great job in engaging with her audience, but there are many others who really need to work on their individual brand management!
I’ve been thinking quite a lot about how financial services companies in the UK could use location-based services to enhance their brand. (Note, I’m going to focus on foursquare here, rather than Facebook places or Gowalla, as this is the one that I have most experience with.)
The key thing to remember is that you don’t actually need to have geographically diverse locations, such as branches, in order to use location-based services effectively.
Here’s an example – AmEx teamed up with foursquare this month for a trial to offer its card users cashback when they paid using AmEx at participating merchants. All you do is sign up your card via the AmEx foursquare page, check in to the location as normal, ‘load’ the deal to your card via your smartphone, then pay as normal. The money gets credited to your statement within a few days. It’s easy, straightforward, fun, creates a bit of buzz and you get a special badge too. The added bonus is that AmEx donates some money to charity when you complete your first transaction – probably not the main reason why you would do all this, but a nice touch all the same.
What a fantastic example of a financial services brand engaging with consumers in an innovative way!
So, with that in mind, here are some things that could be done in this country right now. The first, and most obvious one, would be a high street bank because of the physical presence that they have around the UK. If such a bank were to set up a foursquare presence, then it could create a range of badges for customers such as ‘SuperSaver’ (for when you make 10 deposits into an ISA); ‘First-time buyer’ (for when you take out a mortgage); ‘KidsFund’ (for when you open a CTF; or ‘Chequing In’ for when you have to deposit a pesky cheque.
As we all move more towards a scenario where purchasing decisions are heavily influenced by your online networks, by social media sites and by online reviews, wouldn’t this be fantastic PR for a bank to have a certain section of its customers talking about its products and services via foursquare. The big benefit comes when these users’ foursquare accounts are linked to their twitter and facebook profiles, which I’m assuming most are.
You could make more of this, of course, by introducing discounts or special offers for whichever user is the ‘mayor’ of a branch, although I suspect that this would be a logistical nightmare for the product development and administration teams. So, why not invite all the mayors of all your locations to take part in feedback sessions to help improve customer service and develop new products or propositions? This could be a virtual or real-world event, but it would be a really valuable focus group.
Extending this example further, if this bank was a sponsor in the sporting or musical world, as many are, then you could leverage that sponsorship even more through foursquare. Santander sponsors the McLaren Mercedes Formula 1 team, of course. What if you could check in to a Grand Prix circuit and then get a discount off your purchase of Team McLaren Mercedes merchandise if you pay with your Santander card?
The idea of badges would work quite well with a company like AVIVA too, given its sponsorship of athletics. VISA could, of course, do something similar to AmEx and also has a golden opportunity (forgive the pun) to capitalise on its involvement in London 2012. The London 2012 foursquare site is well-established and looks very impressive.
So, there you’ve got banks, payments providers and insurance companies, particularly those that put money into sponsorship as part of their marketing, which can amplify their reach through the use of foursquare. I hope to see developments in this area in the not-too distant future.
[Image credit Nan Palermo.]
Social commerce in financial services
Social commerce can be defined as ‘the use of social technologies to connect, listen, understand, and engage to improve the shopping experience’. Altimeter Group says that there are four stages of social commerce:
- Let’s Be Social – simply using social technology to build the brand and community
- Enlightened Engagement – informing customers through reviews, experts or other respected sources
- Store of the Community – customers help drive product selection assortment and merchandising
- Frictionless Commerce – the buying experience is completely redesigned to create a fully customer-centric experience
How is this relevant to retail financial services? Well, a shopper is a shopper, no matter whether they are looking for a personal loan, a savings account, some IT hardware or an airline ticket. Believe it or not, social commerce is changing the way we shop, and this is already affecting the financial services sector.
Most financial services companies have not progressed beyond the first stage of simply being social. First Direct are using Twitter, Flickr and YouTube and Barclaycard are using Twitter and Facebook to connect and engage with their customers. These are big steps in the right direction and very innovative for the sector.
How might social commerce go beyond that though? Stage two, ‘Enlightened Engagement’ could include customer case studies on YouTube or Flickr, for example. Imagine how powerful it would be if you were looking for home or car insurance and you could view video clips from people extolling the virtues of your claims management service. (Too much emphasis is placed on cost these days anyway.) You could also have experts from outside your organisation, such as financial commentators, provide video or audio clips to help inform people. Or, you could have a forum where potential customers can discuss amongst themselves what they think of the product or service before purchase.
Stage 3, ‘Store of the Community’ could be a product or product range that is influenced by consumers via social media channels such as Facebook or Twitter. Imagine a simplified, stripped down mortgage or insurance product designed by product and propositions people as a direct response to what they gathered from Twitter and twitpolls.
How about product and proposition teams stop guessing what people want and just ask them? Social media is a rich vein of feedback and intelligence waiting to be tapped. Taking it a step further, you could even part develop two propositions, video them and get people to vote for their favourite, a bit like Google Slam.
Stage 4, ‘Frictionless Commerce’ is a tough one. Is it even possible for an existing financial services firm to start from scratch to put the customer at the heart of the experience? I suspect not and I think that the only organisations that will be able to achieve this nirvana will be new ones. However, here I defer to a higher authority, Brett King, and his post on the prototype bank.
News just in – Joe Wiggins has been nominated in the ‘Provider of the Year’ category at the IFA Life ‘Social Media in Financial Services 2′ awards in November.
I was recently asked to take part in a PRCA panel debate on social media in a B2B context. I used my ‘slot’ to outline the work that I had undertaken at Legal & General and the challenges facing large financial services providers operating within the tight constraints of financial regulation. I explained that Legal & General knew that people were talking about them on social media platforms but they didn’t really know what was being said or what the sentiment was. In a sense, only half the dialogue was taking place because Legal & General wasn’t participating.
I then went on to outline the importance of robust monitoring to alert the company to potential opportunities and threats, as well as having a crisis management plan detailing who is responsible for what. In terms of who ‘owns’ social media, it is different for every company and really depends where the early adopters and the social media advocates/ evangelists sit. It is likely to be one of three areas that take the lead: PR, Marketing or the Web team, but no-one can realistically expect to totally control it. For Legal & General, it seemed natural for corporate communications to drive the social media stream because, from a risk management point of view, it was seen as a reputation management issue.
However, my view is that you need a multi-disciplinary working party drawing on multiple areas and skill sets to drive social media forward. Ultimately, it is imperative that HR, legal, compliance and customer services are involved as well as the external communicators, marketers and techies.
It’s also important that staff know the parameters in which they can operate, so proper guidelines are essential. In the same way that there are rules around what is acceptable for email and internet use, there must also be for social media use. My view is that social media sites should not be blocked for staff as they can be ambassadors for your brand. Any fears that everyone will spend their whole time on Facebook is archaic. Empower and trust your staff – just let them know exactly where they stand.
I concluded by summarising my thoughts on social media for B2B financial services providers into ten tips. I hope you find them useful:
- Listen and learn – don’t act without knowing the full picture. It takes time to get familiar with social media sites because they communities.
- Understand your customers’ media habits – as with any PR, target the most relevant media as a priority
- Start a multi-disciplinary working party – meet regularly, pool resources, share what you have learnt
- Get compliance and legal on board early – without them, you’re finished
- Prepare for the worst – if nothing else, you must make sure that you can fight fires effectively
- Appreciate that it is a long haul – you might get social media, but lots of people don’t. Prepare to sound like a broken record
- Get a business case and a senior sponsor – ideally a board-level colleague
- Don’t start what you can’t finish – you can’t really have a social media campaign with a defined start and finish because once you ‘activate’ something it’s got to run and run. So don’t start that community or build that blog if you are going to give up on it in six months’ time.
- Guide not control – the concept of owning social media is as daft as owning the internet. No-one does, because it is integrated. So try to guide other areas of the business.
- Chill out! – the principles of communication and relationship building are pretty much the same as traditional PR, so if you are well versed in them, then you’ve got a pretty good set of core skills
I recently wrote an opinion piece for CorpComms magazine to help in-house communicators feel more comfortable using social media. In essence, my argument is that social media ‘principles’ are not that new and that PRs should be used to the concept that you cannot control how your output is eventually used.
When you create strategies, think about how social media can enhance (rather than replace) your existing PR activity. When you create stories and issue news think about ‘shareability’ and make it easy for people to spread your message.
For a long time, I have been treating key influencers almost in the same way as journalists because I know that they have significant reach. The same principle should apply to bloggers and influential social media users.
I concluded by saying that PR is still about building relationships and it is still about people. If anything, social media is actually putting the ‘public’ back into public relations, and moving it away from simply media relations.
You can read the full version here.
We all know that journalists are bombarded with PR material every day and that unfortunately, some of it is poorly targeted, poorly produced and not relevant. Journalists can actually get some brilliant story ideas from PRs, as well as really useful content to enhance an existing story and vital statistics, quotes and case studies within very tight deadlines.
So I guess the answer to the above question depends on whether the PR is trying to ‘get a story to run’ or ‘stop a story from running’. Journalists would have a pretty hard time functioning if there weren’t efficient PRs to organise spokespeople, source stats and case studies quickly or investigate customer stories. Similarly, they would probably rather have the mobile numbers of all the experts and top people than have to phone a press office and get an anodyne reactive statement.
Either way, journalists and PRs do depend on each other, but not exclusively, and less so since the advent of social media. Journalists source stories from readers, contacts, announcements, surveys and increasingly from bloggers and social media platforms such as Twitter. PRs need journalists to be featured in newspapers, magazines and on radio and TV, but now they can also go direct to their target audience via websites, podcasts, iPhone apps, forums, blogs, Facebook, YouTube etc etc.
It comes down to the skills of the PR individual and the ethos of the company as to whether the PR function is a barrier or a facilitator. But the acid test of who needs who more comes down to one simple thing – who pays for lunch – and that is still the PR.
I recently met with Christophe Langlois who runs Visible Banking, a site which tracks social media initiatives in financial services, particularly banking. (By the way, this was social networking in action as we originally starting chatting via Twitter earlier in the year!) We started talking about social media and financial services from the perspective of my PR role at Legal & General and ended up producing a short video for his blog.
You can view the video here.
It’s not often that you get to directly experience two separate instances of dire social media communications within hours of each other, but this is what has happened to me today. Firstly, an organisation (that shall remain nameless) tweeted a link to a news release that was significant enough to attract the attention of national business editors. However, the shortened URL that was sent actually took me to the content management system interface of the site rather than the public version.
Talk about a potential disaster! This therefore meant that I had the potential to wreak havoc with the site (obviously I didn’t) but raised the important issue of checking URLs and links before they are distributed. That also goes for people who ‘re-tweet’ actually.
This was error number one. Error number two was the ‘new’ link that was circulated to rectify the situation, but which then contained all sorts of formatting errors. At least it did when using the Firefox browser, but not in Internet Explorer. The lesson? Make sure that your content works in all web browsers – not everyone uses Internet Explorer! Error number three was really just the icing on the cake, and that was to include the contact details of a member of staff that no longer worked for the organisation.
Case study number two happened a short time later. It started with the representative from an agency (again, that shall remain nameless) criticising an organisation for its web functionality. These criticisms were public and were not directed at the organisation, just tweeted in general. I for one don’t like these generalised gripes – if you’ve got an issue, take it to the company direct. If you aren’t, then you don’t really want the company to do anything about it, you just want to have a grumble, which is just self-indulgent nonsense.
Anyway, the organisation engaged with the person from the agency. A few tweets were exchanged and then (hilariously) the agency offered the organisation its services if said organisation wanted help with improving the web functionality. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t blame the organisation for politely declining the offer on the grounds that they would probably rather use a professional agency with discretion and integrity.