Teresa Horscroft's blog

Teresa Horscroft is a PR consultant who helps companies in the information technology and marketing sectors to raise awareness of their products and services and increase sales.

08 March 2009

Where news breaks

I first read the news that a Turkish airplane had crashed into Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on BBC NEWs Online. But this online news site was not where the story first broke. Neither was it a rival online news site, television, radio or a daily paper. Citizens not journalists broke the story first on microblogging social website twitter (www.twitter.com in case you haven’t already tweeted). It’s not the first time major news has first been aired by tweeters either – Twitter was also where news of the plane crash on the Hudson and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai first became widely circulated before it was picked up by the media. It got me thinking about whether this was a new media phenomenon or simply an online replication of a process that’s always happened in the real world. Certainly journalists have been listening to consumer conversations for years. In the last few years this may have involved tracking discussions in an online discussion forum or social networking site like twitter, but before the Super Information Highway (what we used to call the Internet way back) it was during a conversation with friends in the pub or at a Rugby game or from snatched conversations on the train. People have long been the real source of a lot of breaking news.

It’s easy to get carried away with the latest in online media. We need to remember that as much as the Internet - and the wikis, microblogs, blogs, web sites and social networking sites that populate it – should be a key element of any communications strategy, life isn’t all online. At least not yet. People still do read the newspaper, talk to friends and look up from their blackberries or computer screens (from time to time anyway)!

The Wheels of Change – Are you monitoring the consumer generated temperature?

I have just returned from a 30 mile cycle ride during which I experienced five, yes five, changes of weather. It started out as a beautiful sunny Spring day. By mile five it was blowing a gale. Rain, hail and snow followed me on my journey through the spectacular Hampshire countryside. As I took off my sunglasses and put on my waterproof, I congratulated myself on being prepared for the change of weather. And while I did not expect it to rain, hail and snow all in one day, it was a reminder that it’s always a good idea to be prepared for the unexpected. This is as true for cycling as it is in business in fact. I imagine I’m not the only person that is always (well nearly always) prepared for the unpredictable British weather or a puncture. But how many businesses are really prepared for potential crises?

We know that companies need to listen to their customers, but how many really do all of the time? With thousands of consumer-generated media - discussion groups on facebook or other community sites, blogs, microblogs (or tweets) to name just a few –news travels exceedingly quickly. This is particularly true of negative news. Companies can no longer wait for the consumer feedback forms to be analysed. They need to be listening all of the time. It can be difficult to monitor the thousands and millions of blogs, let alone social networking discussions. Certainly traditional monitoring systems such as press clippings services are no longer adequate. New services are required. Millward Brown Precis pioneered the development some years ago of a service that monitors millions of online discussion forums in real-time. Rather than capture and send individual blogs as ‘clips’ that PR departments or busy executives never have time to read, its Precis:cubed product scans online consumer discussions and clusters selected topics together so that businesses can take a ‘big picture’ view of what online discussion ‘themes’ relate to their product, company or sector. The single-screen graphical view is a useful real-time thermometer for consumer opinion and an early warning system for potential problems or trends.

But is listening enough? No it isn’t. A crisis plan as well as an issues management plan should be in place – after all if issues are managed effectively then a crisis can be averted – to respond to any issues that are unearthed by such monitoring. Setting up a reputation management group is a good first step. This group would be responsible for monitoring external issues and trends and then making recommendations on changes to strategy, business plans and processes accordingly. They would develop and communicate the organisation’s position on and response to appropriate issues, both internally and externally.

In addition to the crisis or reputation management plan, discussion trends and issues should also be fed back into the business to improve existing programmes or products. The communications team for example could develop a response or campaign around consumers’ concerns before they gain momentum and become a crisis. But it doesn’t need to stop here. For example, the product development team for example, may make changes to the next version of the fridge once they discover that customers are frustrated by the five hole egg container (because every time they buy six eggs there is always one that doesn’t fit into the container). The call centre may also find it useful to know as early as possible that the latest software release is causing problems and prepare their staff with an appropriate response for any inbound calls related to this issue.

You may be prepared for the weather with an umbrella in your bag and perhaps now a pair of snow boots in the back of the car, but is your business prepared to deal with issues and potential crises?