Monday, April 21, 2008

Got Social Media?

When it comes to social media, do agencies get it? Apparently not according to a TNS/Cymfony study that polled more than 60 marketers.

To corroborate their findings, I spoke with executives from several national PR agencies here in Atlanta to get their perspective on how their jobs are changing as a result of social media.

To paraphrase a former president, my conclusion is that it depends on your definition of what “it” is.

It’s a complex question confronting agencies anywhere. More than a matter of attracting qualified employees, agencies must keep up with a changing marketplace and new tools. Clients also point out that agencies are not using these tools themselves.

On the other hand, agencies must also contend with clients who send conflicting messages. Skepticism, fear, inertia or unfamiliarity temper client curiosity for social media. What seems like a mandate or the price of entry in San Francisco is still a nice to have in Atlanta.

Silicon Valley vs Atlanta

While Silicon Valley based Sun Microsystems leverages social networking on its Openeco site…

Atlanta-based Home Depot’s Eco Options does not and instead is focused on its in-store strategy.

By way of example, consider Sun Microsystem’s Openeco and Home Depot’s Eco Options. Two sites, focused on green awareness, similar in name, but very different. Sun is based in Sunnyvale, California in the heart of Silicon Valley. Home Depot is located in Atlanta, Georgia. Openeco is dynamic; it encourages collaboration and builds community. EcoOptions is static; its purpose is to help customers find Home Depot’s complete inventory of green products. For Sun, social media is fundamental to the site’s success. For Home Depot, social media is gaining acceptance but it is not critical to its focus on the in-store experience.

For me, the sites reflect the challenges and opportunities that PR agencies face – whether you are in Atlanta or most any city outside Silicon Valley where the business culture is slower to embrace the power of social media.

The corporate social media record in Atlanta does not appear to be extensive but agencies are making inroads.

Edelman built a blogger outreach program for Char-Broil, a client based in Columbus, Georgia, for a New York City press event. Edelman brought together, for the first time, bloggers with a passion for grilling. The bloggers were given the exact same access as mainstream reporters. The coverage in the blogosphere reflected the bloggers appreciation for this treatment.

Fleishman has built an internal wiki for the Center for Disease Control to help promote brand continuity and identity across the CDC’s various departments.

And Ketchum created Nokia Mosh.a mobile content site where community members upload, distribute, find and manage content to be viewed and enjoyed on mobile devices.

Building a Staff of Social Network Experts

PR agenices see opportunity and growth. While they are using their national network of in-house social media specialists, Atlanta agencies are also turning to existing local executives or staffing up with new social media experts.

Ketchum South recently hired James Andrews, who previously worked in the record business at Sony Music and has done interactive advertising and marketing. GCI Group appointed Diane Lore, a strategist, journalist and former editor of momseasychair, “one of the leading online spaces for women, who are also mothers.” Manning Selvage & Lee brought in Melanie Babcock-Brown, the first person at the Atlanta agency to hold the title of senior vice president digital strategy and solutions. Meanwhile, Marilynn Mobley is Edelman’s senior vice president, strategic counsel. She regularly contributes to her blog Babyboomerinsights that examines the lifestyle of the baby boomer generation. It’s very different than James’ blog Thekeyinfluencer, which is an amalgam of politics, music and youth culture. At Fleishman Hlillard there is Tom Barnes, whose mission is to help people make sense of digital communication methods and practices.

The agencies are also training their staffs and immersing them in the ways of blogs, social networks and podcasts. GCI held an meet-up of its executive team in Second Life to get acquainted with virtual worlds and online communities. It also has provided daylong social media immersion seminars for clients and potential clients. Edelman in Atlanta has sent the most staffers of any Edelman office to its own social media immersion program in Chicago. There staffers learn how social media really works, how to measure it and when it’s appropriate to use with a client.

All this training and all these hires reflect that agencies understand the growing importance of social media and their desire to be competitive.

As James Andrew sees it: “We are looking at the redefinition of the digital tapestry and all the information channels — blogs, Facebook, IM and the like — that consumers use.”

His challenge is helping Ketchum develop a strategy that speaks to the business culture here in Atlanta without compromising the culture of social media.

Overcoming Risk Aversion

And that business culture is cautious. Ogilvy PR Managing Director Mickey Nall describes how everyone wants social media, but many are “tiptoeing” through it. Mickey is trying to use social media as part of fully integrated marketing campaigns that address the whole brand. But many clients are still at the early stage of gathering intelligence and monitoring online conversations.

Marilynn Mobley talks about the “paradox” here in Atlanta.

“It is known as a progressive city that embraces opportunity and is open to new ideas. At the same time, the corporate culture here leans a little toward the conservative, so there’s also a healthy skepticism about trying something that seems kind of ‘out there,’ as many people view social media.

She added,

“When it comes to the success of social media programs, companies don’t get to declare it for themselves. Only the people who engage with companies can decide if they’re successful. And they make that decision based on whether they believe the company is authentic and transparent.”

Or as Tom Barnes said, “A lot or people are afraid of losing control. But whether they like it or not, online conversations about the brand are still taking place.”

Ultimately I think Brad McAfee, managing director at Porter Novelli said it best. “The reward will outweigh any risks of loss of control. But companies will only figure this out if they take a risk. They may fail, but ultimately they will learn how do it better in the future.”

Taking the Lead

There is one thing that all agencies do get however.

Given that we are in the early stages of social media adoption, all the PR agencies I talked to emphasized the real opportunity that social media represented. Not just new business, but the chance to wrest power from advertising and marketers.

As Tom Barnes said, “It’s ours to lose.”

Or as Melanie Babcock-Brown said, “Communicators can’t wait; marketers will seize the opportunity.”

Social media is about building relationships and managing reputation. Whether we are talking about traditional or new media, that’s a role the PR agencies are best suited to perform.

Let me get back to you.

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Posted by Dan Greenfield in 06:15:34

8 Responses to “Got Social Media?”

  1. Jerry says:

    Interesting read Dan. Good stuff. I still social media is a glove that doesn’t fit every hand. There are companies that need to adopt it based on their business model and their marketplace. Others don’t ‘need’ to, but eventually may ‘want’ to. The questions for the those businesses is where does it rank in terms of need.

    I see and talk to many b2b companies thinking about it, but ultimately it just won’t bring customers to them (in the iterations that social media is today) and that’s their focus. It might change when they realize it is a tool that they could use in some sort of crisis scenario…but that case study is yet to be written.

  2. Digital Gal says:

    Dan, great column which outlines really well where the Atlanta PR scene is at this moment – although I think the landscape’s going to look vastly different in even as short as a span as a year…also good comment from Jerry — I think so often everyone clamours to get on what they think is the right train — even when it ends up not meeting their objectives at all … this is where there needs to be much more thorough front-end work, and much less “shake a shiny toy at them.” Keep up the good work, Dan.

  3. Digital Gal says:

    Dan, great column which outlines really well where the Atlanta PR scene is at this moment – although I think the landscape’s going to look vastly different in even as short as a span as a year…also good comment from Jerry — I think so often everyone clamours to get on what they think is the right train — even when it ends up not meeting their objectives at all … this is where there needs to be much more thorough front-end work, and much less “shake a shiny toy at them.” Keep up the good work, Dan.

  4. Toby says:

    Dan – thanks for the update on what’s happening in my own back yard. Nice to see Atlanta agencies getting some visibility.

  5. AmandaVega says:


    Great commentary. What always perplexes us is that b2b companies are the first to shy away from social media unless they can equate definitive sales numbers to the activity – yet when there is a criss, they want you to jump on it and do it immediately. By the time most agencies can set up the profiles, tools, and technology to respond in a crisis situation, it’s too late…especially in the social media arena. By the time you’re geared for commentary – they’ve eaten you alive and you can’t catch up with the sheer amount of content that others have produced while the agency/company was “setting up” to respond. So, we suggest that even if not actively USING social media – have a blog up and ready (and not visible to public) within your site. Also, have your RSS feeds ready for all keywords including company name – so that you are ready to roll…just in case.

    Amanda Vega

  6. Dan Greenfield says:


    Thanks for the note. With so much more to keep up with in Silicon Valley, it is easy to overlook the challenges and opportunities in your own backyard. As they say, there is no place like home.

  7. Dan Greenfield says:

    Amanda and Jerry

    Your point about crisis blogging is right on. In fact, it was a point made by one of the agencies that I left on the editing room floor when I was writing this piece. (Postings can only be so long.)

    But yes clients often don’t see the value of engagement until there is a crisis. Ironically, negative perceptions can be already be brewing in the blogosphere before a crisis.

    It’s kind of like the health insurance. In most cases, you can get coverage for a disease when its the most expensive, but companies rarely cover prevention when it is the least costly.

  8. Dan Greenfield says:


    You are right. Companies generally evaluate social media as a revenue generating tool. They often forget that it is also a cost saving tool as forums can serve as a valuable means to defray more expensive calls to call centers. Having customers serve as ambassadors with no expectation of compensation is an invaluable sales and marketing tool.

    Having customers evaluate products before you launch is also invaluable in the product development process.

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