Sep 16

Closing the Digital Gap

Sam Ford’s most excellent PRWeek webinar last week was intended to share the best practices of three Fortune 500 corporations that are doing digital right. They are: Sun Microsystems, Southwest Airlines and H&R Block.

While each operates in entirely different business universes, each had to find ways to overcome internal obstacles, close the internal "digital gap" and convince senior executives to embrace Web 2.0.

Paula Berg of Southwest Airlines, for example, said the most important first step to entering the digital world is understanding the organization’s "voice." How do you want to contribute to the conversation and what do you want to say? What tone will you employ and how responsive do you intend to be? Paula also advised organizations to identify and test a small, controlled digital initiative before turning on the master switch. That serves the dual purpose of fine tuning one’s voice as well as calming the fears of internal naysayers.

Paula Drum of H&R Block positioned digital as critical to understanding what was being said about her company’s brand and reputation. While management worried about the inherent loss of control, they were more concerned about not engaging in conversations, demonstrating the organization’s ability to provide value-add counseling and re-positioning the firm as more than just a tax adviser.

Russ Castronovo of Sun Microsystems had different advice since his organization lives, eats and breathes all things digital. That said, Russ overcomes naysayers or perceived internal roadblocks (think: legal) by evaluating an initiative’s cost/benefit ratio prior to engaging. So, rather than pulling the trigger on a Twitter program or a podcast series, he’ll first assess the internal investment versus the anticipated outcome. Castronovo agreed with his fellow panelists that "seeing" what’s being said about the company’s brand is usually enough to engage senior management and gain their approval to move forward.

Berg, Drum and Castronovo are fortunate to work within enlightened corporate cultures. Based upon the research we and others have conducted though, they are the exception, not the norm. Far too many corporate communicators have expressed frustration that their managers believe engaging in digital means losing control, angering potential constituent audiences or placing the organization in some sort of legal or financial jeopardy.

I don’t mean to minimize the risks, but organizations need to begin engaging in the digital discourse soon, or risk the competitive consequences later (Btw, several panelists reiterated that,  just because your firm has a Web site, doesn’t mean it’s actively engaging in marketplace dialogue).

Understanding how pioneers at Southwest, Sun and H&R Block closed the digital gap is a great starting point for making the case for digital communications at your organization.

So, good luck and good hunting. Closing the digital gap at your organization isn’t only good for your company, it’s a smart career move for you as a communications executive.

Sep 10

It’s All About Engaging in the Conversation

Our very own Sam "The Hilltopper" Ford moderated a most excellent PR Week webcast yesterday on the subject of digital communications. Specifically, Sam and his three panelists (Paula Berg from Southwest Airlines, Russ Castronovo from Sun Microsystems and Paula Drum from H&R Block) discussed best practices for closing the gap that exists in many corporations between communicators who "get" digital" and senior management who don’t.

Each panelist had different success stories and cautionary tales, but each seemed to focus on one central theme: the best way to convince the c-suite of digital’s importance is to share what’s being said about the organization on the Web. To be more precise, Paula Berg showed her executives what Southwest’s customers were saying about the airline in various chat rooms. From there, it was relatively easy to convince them to not only begin blogging, but to be strategic about it. She cited her company’s anticipation of Aloha Airlines’ chapter 11 filing and Southwest’s aggressive Web postings that offered stranded passengers immediate solutions.

Castronovo said Sun is blessed with a culture that revels in blogging and believes that not responding to what’s being said on the Web is akin to not answering the phone.

For her part, Drum credits H&R Block’s digital communications program with helping to re-position the firm away from being solely seen as "store fronts on a corner" and, instead, as a financial counselor.

Each panelist agreed that, when it comes to digital, seeing is believing. Paula Berg said her CEO’s "Eureka" moment came when she forwarded a Twitter comment from a customer. He immediately sensed the new technology’s importance and asked for a 45-minute tutorial.

I’ll add other observations in coming blogs, but rule one for closing the digital divide with the C-suite seems to be sharing what’s being said about the brand in Cyberspace and encouraging the decision-makers to engage in the dialogue.

Jun 05

PR Pros may have access to C-suite, but their digital message isn’t getting through

USC’s Annenberg School for Communication’s GAP V survey is a timely and helpful measurementCsuite_2
substantiating PR’s rising importance within the corporate infrastructure. The main findings show that 64 percent of the 520 senior corporate communications respondents report directly to the C-suite. As a result, they are more likely to have more resources than those who don’t. OK, so far, so good.

Jerry Swerling, who heads the school’s PR studies program, says the question is no longer whether or not PR has a seat at the table, but what to do with it. No argument with that point either.

But, here’s where the Annenberg findings fall short. We’ve participated in two recent (and fairly extensive) surveys of PR pros. Both showed a huge ‘digital’ gap between the PR/communications function and the C-suite. In fact, PR pros are incredibly frustrated about the C-suite’s lack of understanding and support of digital. Respondents to our survey overwhelmingly ‘get’ digital’s importance, but cannot get the C-suite to get it. As a result, PR executives report little support to properly their fund digital initiatives.

I’m not suggesting there’s a gap in the Annenberg Gap V survey findings, but I’d love to see next year’s Gap VI probe more deeply into what I see as one of the biggest, and least well understood, pain points facing PR pros today.