The following is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.
In the past, media relations operations in organizations took a top down messaging approach towards communications. Only assigned spokespeople could talk to the media or in public on behalf of a company or nonprofit. Advertising and other forms of public outreach were the domain of the communications staff.
Now, online social networks create a world exists where mass media approaches no longer work. These approaches increasingly fall on deaf ears. With less traditional media and more disparate sources, stakeholders increasingly resist the usual corporate communications efforts. As Greg Verdino has so well stated in his new book MicroMarketing, it’s an era of micromedia, which in turn requires micromarketing.
Many, many organizations have tried to engage in social media over the past five years with mixed to poor results. Invariably, the inability to embrace conversational marketing necessary for social success roots itself in cultural processes from the past.
Industrial era structures and their departments with almost absolute domain over their subject areas cripple online efforts. Consider legal and executive approvals, command and control methods towards communications, IT department controls over Internet usage and software. By the time, an organization offers an approved communication with its stakeholders (if it even gets out of the enterprise), the effort offers little relevance or conversation that interests Fifth Estate members.
To be effective, an organization has to transform its culture to nimbly participate in social media communities. It has to undergo several changes, the first of which is to change its approach towards communicating. A top down messaging approach does not work.
Instead, an organization needs to become a community member, literally a part of the Fifth Estate. It may be tough for executives and communicators to swallow this concept. But in reality, while an organization may seem like it doesn’t need to take this step to be successful, the Fifth Estate already exists within its walls! As the Air Force so aptly puts it, every Airman Is a Communicator. The sooner companies and nonprofits embrace social, not just as a communications tool, but as a factual reality that permeates its very culture.
This community-centric approach to communicating in social networks involves a commitment to having real conversations, creating social media policy across the organization so that online conversations can occur freely, and developing an embedded journalistic approach towards providing information. By building relationships with individual members of the community, and offering factual, quality and relevant information, organizations become intrinsic members of the Fifth Estate.
Consider how the American Red Cross (ARC) approached its effort to evolve emergency social data communications during a crisis (full disclosure: I worked on this project). Rather than issue a press release, ARC’s executive and communications team asked 150 community members to participate in a conference in person, and thousands participated virtually. It published blog posts and research to provide information in advance of the conference, and is taking community input on a wiki and through roundtables to evolve emergency responders approaches to social media requests for help.
While this effort is still in process, it’s an example of embracing and becoming a part of the Fifth Estate. ARC participates within a larger conversational ecosystem.
But to get there, ARC had to more than just have the right attitude. It has evolved its culture significantly over several years (In fact, the organization’s social media successes were featured as a case study in my last book, Now Is Gone).
My business partner Beth Kanter calls this cultural shift becoming Networked. Instead of simply launching a campaign or an initiative, turning the focus inwards and examining cultural barriers first can yield much greater success. Optimizing processes, creating policies, and allocating resources to better approach social media creates the roadmap to becoming an effective networked member of the Fifth Estate.