Social media presents new challenges for marketing, PR

  • Marketing and PR converging even more in the social media age
  • Companies need to define roles and responsibilities

Social media presents new challenges for marketing, PRTHE Malaysian social media space had its latest viral meme last week after the administrator of the Facebook page for the country’s newest shopping mall had what appeared to be a meltdown and posted snarky and sarcastic comments aimed at an individual customer.

Paradigm Mall, located in the suburbs of Petaling Jaya adjacent to the city of Kuala Lumpur, had opened only four days before as complaints about non-functioning elevators and other facilities began to mount on its FB page.

When the admin said the mall was looking into it, a customer named Freddie Toh responded with “Again, looking.”

That appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with the unidentified admin shooting back, in Manglish (Malaysian English), “Yes Freddie, Paradigm Mall does not know magic. Cannot snap fingers and make changes. You can? Then we want to hire you!!”

Toh continued the exchange in the same vein, saying “Well you need to pay me well for it. If you think you can afford it.”

Then the admin went into overdrive, posting: “Hi Freddie, sure! You know MAGIC wor! However expensive also we can afford!! Then we no longer have to answer "looking into it". Come for an interview NOW (Since you know magic you can appear now right). This is awesome, Paradigm Mall has now Freddie Toh with INSTANT solutions to EVERYTHING! PERFECT MALL now, people! Let's give Freddie Toh a big big hand!!!!”

FB pages, Twitter and blogs were soon rife with harsh and humorous responses as Malaysians showed off their photoshopping skills and special brand of humor. Some even applied for the post of magician at Paradigm Mall, listing out their “qualifications.”

By the time the dust had settled, the mall’s management had issued apologies and promised action against the employee with a short fuse, but the meme showed it still had legs and continues to linger.

The Mall’s public relations agency said that the FB page was beyond its purview, and the debacle has raised the issue of social media being handled by unqualified staff, and whether it should be handled by PR professionals.

The issue is even more critical given that Malaysians have taken to social media like ducks to water.
According to research firm TNS, 88% of online users in Malaysia have uploaded photos to social networks or photo-sharing sites, the second-highest in the world after Thailand with 92%. Malaysia is also the most “social” country, with an average of 233 friends per user, followed by Brazil with 231, based on a 2009 study.

According to the comScore social networking Index, Malaysia social networking activity is second in the Asia Pacific region in terms of penetration, with more than 66% of its online population visiting a social networking site in December 2008.

Nielsen says that more than 12 million online users in Malaysia belong to some community. Social networking sites are the most visited sites in Malaysia as well.

This has led most companies and brands to realize that social media marketing has to be an integral part of their communications arsenal. The question then remains, who should handle it, marketing or PR?

Marketing vs PR: That old battleground

Marketing is generally focused on strategic and tactics to market and sell products and services, and can be measured by increased sales or number of clients.
PR involves activities to raise awareness of a company (or its products and services) and to positively influence how members of the public relate to the above. Building relationships is key, but measurements are more intangible, although there are tools or techniques that PR experts do use.

Some companies subsume both functions under one department, typically called corporate communications, which is in charge of all internal and external communications.

However in many companies they are two different departments. Depending on internal dynamics, they may have very little to do with each other on a daily basis, and perhaps work together only on major campaigns.

Pic courtesy of Teoh Jui HongTherein lies the rub. Teoh Jui Hong (pic), managing director of BRANDTHINK Malaysia, believes that separate departments are no longer viable, if they ever were.

“Marketing and PR cannot exist separately from one another. We have seen many situations where a marketing campaign is derailed by the lack of follow-through from the sales department, or where a PR campaign does not take into account the brand objectives being set by the marketing department, resulting in conflicting messages,” he says.

In fact, Teoh views marketing and PR as two sides of the same coin. “They both have a single objective -- to assist the business make a profit by influencing the behavior of people who contribute to that profit.

“However, different approaches to achieving those objectives have created the illusion of dichotomy. A business that is grappling with this will be ineffective. It is then the responsibility of the CEO (chief executive officer) to realign the business in the right direction.
“If the head does not set the direction, and the rest of the body does not follow, a company cannot possibly be able to achieve the goals it has set out to achieve,” he says.

And that “head” is important. Despite all the social media gurus and experts out there, it is still a nascent field that spells a change from the traditional way of running an organization and doing business.

And change best happens when there is someone championing the cause, even if it is for a single campaign.

Teoh concurs. “In my own experience, I have found the most effective campaigns are led by a single champion. When we worked with a brand manager, or marketing department that has the pulse on every facet of a marketing activity – advertising, events, PR and social media – the resulting campaign tends to resonate more strongly with the target audience.

“I believe this is the most important shift in recent times: The integration of disparate tasks into one focused pillar,” he adds.

Most companies’ social media activities revolve around marketing only -- they’re primarily focused on running promotions and contests. However, social media is about building relationships, which traditionally falls under PR’s purview.  Are marketing departments ready to take on such a role?

Depends on how you define roles and responsibilities, and not just marketing and PR.

“To the advertising agency, social media is another tool to advertise products. To the PR Agency, it is a way to engage and communicate to the consumer. To the customer service department, a call center equivalent. To others, it's a store-front where sales can be made.

“Social media is too dynamic to be simply shoehorned into a specific department with the view of doing only promotions and advertisements. It can and should be so much more.

“The organization therefore must evaluate how social media can add value to its business and mobilize departments within it to take advantage of it,” says Teoh.
Bad reputation

With its growing dominance and influence, social media has become the first point of contact for many companies. Indeed, for smaller companies and those with shallower pockets, it may be the only mass communications platform they can afford.

But the in-your-face nature of social media, compounded by its immediacy – things happens so fast that if you blink, you may sometimes find yourself the butt of jokes for the entire nation’s online community – means that good PR skills become even more important.
This is why PR, even if social media is handled by a different department, cannot stay aloof. PR is also responsible for neutralizing negative press – and social media is, in some ways, mass media just as much as the press is.

So even if it is a digital marketing campaign, it is going to affect a company’s reputation and image, which falls squarely on PR’s lap.

Any PR agency or department needs to monitor the company’s reputation and brand perception, says Teoh.

“I would argue that if PR is diligent in monitoring activities that affect the brand and company's reputation, it would have uncovered issues such as those experienced by Paradigm Mall sooner and they would have acted more quickly.

“And act they must! While I do acknowledge that agencies retained by clients have limited scope dependent on the fees paid, should a PR agency simply ignore a crisis situation that can clearly damage its client’s reputation, just because its remit does not include social media?

“What if the client runs a newspaper advertisement that offends the sensibility of segment of the population?” he says.

In February, a YouTube video showing a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) staff member apparently assaulting a customer also went viral in Malaysia. The worker was suspended, and KFC issued apologies.

In referring to that incident, Teoh asks, “Is this a retail operations issue? A reputation issue? At which point does it stop being a social media issue and becomes a business issue?”

He is worried about the aftermath of the Paradigm Mall debacle.

“One of the things I fear may happen is increased scrutiny. Companies may add additional layers and red tape that could cripple social media activities. Running a campaign may require approvals from far too many stakeholders who may not even have the means to evaluate these campaigns, or who have contrasting agendas.

“It may slow response times or create a climate of fear which usually results in very safe and mediocre work.

“Instead of regulation, I would suggest businesses set guidelines and standards of conduct and allow innovation to flourish,” he adds.

In the end, Paradigm Mall acted decisively. But while it may fix its elevator and ensure its facilities are topnotch, repairing the damage to its reputation will take a great deal longer.

Will it co-opt the joke – a magic show to be held every weekend, where it can make fun of itself? Or will lie quietly for a while? Who knows, but its management might want to think about involving PR in any such discussion.

One thing it has on its side is that Malaysians have relatively short memories. Anybody here now still remember the MOL social media disaster of 2010?

In keeping with the theme of the topic, Teoh Jui Hong was interviewed via Facebook.
Further reading, videos of interest:

Kent State University PR professors Bill Sledzik and Dr Bob Batchelor weigh in on the ‘Marketing vs PR’ debate and discuss the increasing convergence: View Video

A young Malaysian, Joel Wong, gives some homebrewed wisdom on “How NOT to be a Social Media Executive.” View Video Read about Joel Wong

PR folk are from Venus, the media is from Mars

US firms still shaky on social media policy

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