Public Relations


You’ve heard it before: Individuals using social media to hold people and organizations to a higher level of accountability and transparency for perceived injustices—leveraging their network and the power of an engaged community to bring about change.

No dogs allowed...Board of Health...whaddyamean? I just had a bath!!!

An airline passenger with a smart phone Tweets about the fact that he’s been stuck on a tarmac for four hours with little access to food, water and bathrooms.  We’ve heard about companies monitoring Tweets 24/7, and seen how a Tweet in some cases will get you a faster customer service response than calling or even e-mailing—a real-time response for a real-time communication channel. A well-known restaurant chain is shamed by an employee who posts an inappropriate video to You Tube from one of its franchise locations, and a cable company is held accountable when its cable-repair guy falls asleep on a couch in the middle of a customer’s living room and the video goes viral on You Tube.

So it wasn’t much of a stretch to learn that my local coffee shop turned to social media—and the power of an engaged community—when the local Board of Health enforced a customer complaint about the establishment’s policy of allowing leashed dogs inside the shop with their owners. Coffee Labs—a play on coffee-colored labrador retrievers and the kind of laboratory it is for roasting coffee—has always been a dog-friendly place. Customers like me enjoy the friendly atmosphere and wonderful full-bodied coffee. The presence of an occasional dog is a pleasant diversion, and responsible people acting responsibly with their leashed dogs has always been the norm. A sign on the front window clearly indicates that “dogs are allowed” (Snoopy would be proud), and potential patrons bothered by this policy are always welcome to  take their business elsewhere.

Here’s what happened:

  1. Someone complains to the local Board of Health about bringing dogs into Coffee Labs.
  2. The shop owners build a fan page on Facebook called  I want to go back to Coffee Labs Roasters, WOOF!!!!! and let their network know about it.
  3. The network of loyal customers (455 people as of this writing) is understandably outraged and shows their support.
  4. The local television news—as is the custom with media these days—discovers a story breaking on social media (Facebook) and picks it up for coverage on the evening news.
  5. A local attorney learns of the shop’s plight and volunteers to write a possible waiver to allow dogs back in the shop.

Bravo—the power of an engaged community using social media to fight injustice at the grass-roots level. Just a local coffee shop in the suburbs of New York City who wants to run their business as they see fit, not injustice on some grand scale.

But still…think of the possibilities.

The response came in a matter of days; the network came together voluntarily and participated enthusiastically and vigorously—no one is paying them and no one is paying the local attorney. It’s the power of an engaged community using social media to lock arms.

Lessons for corporate communication, employee engagement

What else might be accomplished through social media communication strategy? Are there lessons to be gleaned by those of us in a corporate communication function? How might social media channels be used in your workplace to bring about this level of engagement and discretionary effort? Are there social media intranet communication strategies hidden in this story? Are your employees passionate about a cause—which one(s)? How can you influence the discussion and motivate to action?

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Public relations is counter-intuitive in the sense that it’s a study of what you’re communicating by not communicating. We’re not taught to think this way and to do so seems slightly paranoid.

Here’s a couple of communication principles organizations and senior leaders can put into practice in order to avoid the fallout—the Tiger Woods effect—of not shaping the message before, during and after a crisis.

1/ Don’t wait for a crisis to be transparent in your messaging– Don’t leave things to chance or fool yourself into thinking that those you manage will be satisfied with your less-than-full disclosure. Even when you have nothing substantive to report, you can be transparent about that, and avoid the guessing game that will invariably take place among your staff and just as invariably result in a less than generous construction/interpretation of your silence. Why be transparent when you have nothing to say? Does that seem counter-intuitive to you? Because it allows the folks in your organization to share in the journey, and share the burden: It establishes trust in your leadership. It’s ok to communicate the half picture, if that’s all you know; the point is to make every effort to keep others in the loop.

2/ Get out in front of the message- Communicate and do it as soon as possible. In some cases it may not always be possible to communicate immediately– say, if you are dealing with some sort of shock or trauma associated with the event at hand. Perhaps in the case of Tiger Woods that was the shock of getting caught. No matter — take the essential time needed to work through the shock or grief, then you or your PR person should  jump into the fray and address the situation as honestly and accurately as possible. You don’t want to add scheming and intentional obfuscation to the list of your misdeeds.

3/ Hold a quarterly Town Hall meeting— Dedicated meetings convened with the goal of two-way communication should be held on a quarterly basis regardless of the type of organization you’re in. A simple form can distributed and incorporated into the meeting (not after the meeting) where participants can weigh-in anonymously about what’s going right, what’s going wrong and which corrective actions may be taken. The next meeting date should be scheduled and expectations should be clearly managed–what important milestones will be achieved before the next Town Hall is convened? When something goes wrong it’s too late to communicate. Be open and consensual and communicate purposefully on a quarterly basis or more frequently.

4/ Establish a leadership and/or manager communication plan: I heard one CEO say managers better know how to communicate or they should be fired. Really? Keep your managers updated regularly through two-way communication channels offered by social media. Establish a process to listen to their concerns so they can incorporate your organization’s strategic goals into what they do everyday. Are they concerned only with performance or have you trained managers to partner with those they manage. When managers take the time to explain the value of the employment experience (or volunteering experience for non-profits) they can drive engagement and motivate employees/volunteers in a way and impacts the bottom line. Managers/supervisors are the most important communicators in your organization. Don’t let this channel go to waste. Teach them how to help advance the career goals of employees in addition to bottom-line corporate financial objectives. Aren’t they related anyway? Thoughts?

Photo Credit: Stefano A’s photostream, licensed by Creative Commons.