Thursday, April 16, 2009

PR in 140 characters (or less)

Below is a short article I recently wrote for the Weber Shandwick Asia Pacific newsletter:

No longer can brands bask in page-long text rich press releases, now, thanks to Twitter, brands need to communicate their messages succinctly in 140 characters or less. Although there are no official user numbers, it is rumoured that Twitter, the micro-blogging social media tool, has amassed around nine million users in its short existence.

The broadcasting of short messages to global followers is the latest explosion on the social media scene, attracting everyone from the tech savvy digerati to celebrities and government officials. It has pushed the boundaries of internet conversation, allowing you to interact with celebrities as if they were your best friend (I recently engaged with Will Carling and Stephen Fry!).

But beware, the darker side of Twitter enables viral word of mouth to spread faster than ever before – a crisis can now be communicated to a global audience in the time it takes to type 140 characters.

As a result, the communications industry has quickly pounced on the potential of Twitter as a tool for broadcasting company messages, creating communities of advocates, engaging with consumers and even an avenue for crisis communications. To bring this to life, here is one recent example of crisis communications involving PepsiCo and an ill-thought-out advertising campaign.

Huw Gilbert, communications manager for PepsiCo International, approved a Pepsi Max advertisement, which depicted a cartoon calorie committing suicide. Twitter users condemned the advertisement as insensitive to those affected by suicide and a raft of criticisms were posted. Gilbert soon caught on that Pepsi’s online reputation was taking a beating and “tweeted” the following public apology:

“We agree this creative is totally inappropriate; we apologise and please know it won’t run again.”

Several critics saw Gilbert’s tweet and one user responded:

“Thank you...for having the guts to get on Twitter on behalf of Pepsi and give us an update on the suicide ad.”

This example highlights how companies that have a Twitter account are better prepared to respond when something goes wrong. In an era where authenticity and transparency are vital to combat skepticism, this type of direct engagement can preserve online corporate reputation.

Other well known brands on Twitter include Starbucks, Amazon, Gartner and Dell. There are a growing number of brands using Twitter to communicate messages, promote products and provide customer service.

Another example is Bob Pearson, head of communities and conversations for Dell, who recently stated that his company had generated US$1 million in computer-related sales through alerts posted to Twitter alone.

The wonders of Twitter do not stop there. We, as communications professionals, can leverage Twitter as a news monitoring tool, a crisis early warning system, a sales channel, a broadcast channel and an audience engagement tool. I consider Twitter as a vital tool in my job and make it my first port of call on my journey to work. We should be ready to identify potential problems and opportunities to effectively counsel our clients in a way that may be outside of our comfort zone.

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