Gerry Corbett has surely seen it all in some forty years of communicating. But social media is what has him worked up these days, and not the way you might think.
Corbett, the immediate past chair of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), sees social not as the end of corporate communication, but as the catalyst for the discipline’s reinvention. At a joint luncheon of the Cleveland chapters of PRSA and the National Investor Relations Institute, Corbett said that both public relations and investor relations (and for that matter, marketing and employee communications) were properly part of a single activity: communicating with and building relationships between organizations and various stakeholders.
“Investor relations and public relations are likely to merge,” Corbett said, “because both are communicating and advocating for organizations, whether to employees, customers, media, investors or analysts.”
He remarked that only a consolidated communication executive can solve the trouble that ensues when messaging among these many publics becomes inconsistent and disjointed, especially in an age when just about anyone can seize the attention of companies. “With social media, anyone has a podium and can have their way.”
Corbett drove home the point by saying that communicators are the only ones who can properly educate the C-Suite on social media, and that with social media use rising in every aspect of corporate communication, the coordinated approach is the only alternative, as is reporting to the CEO.
The CFO is worried about funding the business, not about messaging, and if the CEO isn’t paying attention, he or she is failing to assert full responsibility as only that position can, he said. The advent of social media is only the latest innovation that companies may be failing to embrace. “You’d think that companies would learn from history. But they don’t,” Corbett said.
It was a good talk, but the big value for me was the Q and A following. Corbett’s best in dialogue and response, and unlike many sessions where one struggles to get the participants to open their mouths other than to devour the ubiquitous chicken, there were good, strategic questions, including a lulu from Melanie Eyerman of thunder::tech — how do you convince reluctant CEOs who don’t understand social media or its importance?
Corbett offered that building relationships at that level, becoming a Consigliere to leadership, a trusted advisor, even taking the CFO out for drinks, are all valid strategies. I’m not sure about the last one — it’s pretty hard to break past the gatekeepers at that level unless you’re already at the table.
That question intrigues me, though I suppose you do so the same things to sell any idea at the top of the house: figure out the communication style of the leader and present your case in that form; research thoroughly and articulate both benefits and risks, etc. It’s the research angle (duhhh) that I think is most valid, unless the person you’re trying to convince has categorical short-attention-span disease. I want to explore that concept further, perhaps at a happy hour.
A number of other ideas circled around my weary synapses — place social in the category of issues management (however laughable the idea of managing issues might be in the age of social…) — write a white paper called “making sense of social media” and don’t use any “social media gurus” as sources — focus more on broad communication outcomes than on narrow marketing ones when it comes to social — dig hard for social case studies within specific industries, and don’t use Dell or Comcast unless you’re a) selling online, or b) making a case for communication to take over customer service.
Note: I’m having a devil of a time posting images to this blog ever since it changed URLs last year. I’m open to suggestions!