Social skills: Career Guide 2010

A digital lead's main job is no longer to convince the C-suite to invest in social media, but rather to ensure such tactics are used optimally.

The general consensus at PRWeek's first Digital Roundtable in 2008 was that the C-suite was just starting to warm up to social media. Two years later, PR pros face a new challenge – top decision-makers increasingly understand social media's value, and are diving in headfirst. That may not be an issue when arguing for budget, but social media leads must now possess the communications skills necessary to fulfill CEOs' demands while executing realistic and strategic tasks.
 
Christopher Barger, director of global social media at General Motors, says that while the company is spending up to 30% of its marketing budget on digital, the challenge now lies in making the case for a more strategic, longer-term approach.
 
“Getting dollars isn't the challenge,” he adds. “Now we're trying to get the decision-makers to spend wisely and build strategy that makes sense.
 
“A lot of decision-makers want to lead with the sell first, such as how do we get 400,000 friends on Facebook?” notes Barger. “The biggest piece that's often missing is the need for interaction with the audience, which is part of the appeal of ‘friending' a brand.”
 
As such, he explains that the social media lead should make a case for additional resources, or a shift of resources, within the organization to ensure constant online engagement.
 
THE POWER OF PERSUASION
To convince CEOs that there must be a shift in resources, Barger says PR pros must have hands-on knowledge of the space, a grasp of the competitive landscape, and serious persuasion skills.
 
Recognizing the difficulty in communicating long-term ROI, Barger explains that few people are going to buy a $20,000 to $30,000 vehicle based on interaction on Facebook or Twitter. However, to persuade the boss, communicators can emphasize that in any given year, though only 20% of the market might buy a car, engaging with that other 80% on Twitter may help bump sales the following year.
 
That's where the persuasion skills can make or break the job interview, he says, adding that he had asked the last person he hired to explain what the next big “online thing” would be, and to persuade him to invest resources and experiment with it.
 
John Bell, MD of 360° Digital Influence at Ogilvy PR, agrees that convincing the C-suite to invest in a strategic social media plan requires a more data-driven, comprehensive argument than ever before.
 
He says marketers must possess a knowledge of more disciplined and sophisticated measurement capabilities, as well as a business argument for the strategy.
 
“Social media leads need to be adept at the nuance of communications,” Bell suggests. “We're all trying to demonstrate the business case for social media.”
 
Communicators should show how business-like metrics are related to PR metrics (such as share of voice and favorability) to demonstrate how a targeted online strategy builds overall preference for a brand.
 
“That's the language of the C-suite marketer,” he says. “That's the language we must talk.”
 
For client Ford, Bell's social media team created forecasts and projections against metrics for favorability and share of voice, as well as additional metrics. The team is now reporting these up to the C-suite at the client on a regular basis.
 
While most decision-makers “get it,” he says that there's still a challenge in “talking them through it.” That's why he says, “Anyone who has the sensitivities of working adjacent to a CEO is very valuable.”
 
The result, Bell explains, is a pattern of hiring social media pros from a more diverse pool of talent. He provides one example of a recent hire coming on board from a major measurement and research firm.
 
“She's a strategist,” he notes. “She's using that in her work with our clients.”
 
A lot of these pros, especially slightly younger ones, possess both business sense and hands-on social media skills. Measurement often can be taught, Bell adds.
 
“I'd put any one of them in front of the C-suite today,” he asserts. “They have a confidence and clarity that C-suites appreciate. They're used to explaining things to people who aren't social-media savvy.”
 
Kevin King, MD and digital lead of Edelman's Eastern region, concurs that the implementation of talent from diverse backgrounds is one of the most notable indications that the C-suite is more invested in social media. He explains that now it's less about education and more about how the team can tell the business story and “demonstrate that you can leverage social media to drive the results.”
 
“Now, social media is brought in early on and, in many cases, drives strategy,” adds King. “If you drive overall brand and corporate strategy, you must understand how other components work with it.”
 
King says Edelman has recently hired people from the client side. The new social media employees tend to skew more senior level than in past years, coming on board with broader skills that enable them to communicate and execute a strategic campaign involving technology and marketing communications.
 
He adds that social media leads must be aware of the latest platforms and technologies to get through to a C-suite more excited about new tools, such as the iPhone 4 software or augmented reality. The approach has shifted from educating decision-makers about new platforms to communicating how best to integrate those tools into existing digital programs.
 
“They want to be first to try these new technologies without understanding all the implications from a budget or process standpoint,” says King. “If your overall business strategy is to be an early adopter, trying them out can be part of a branding or image strategy.”
 
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
At the recent IBC conference, Jennifer Houston, president and global lead of WE Studio D at Waggener Edstrom, recognized the new educational challenge in working with the C-suite on social media strategy. She particularly recalls being asked, “What do you do when your VP wants to approve every single tweet?”
 
“It was a perfect example of the need for education and making assumptions about where people are in their understanding of social media,” she explains.
 
If a company can't cede enough control to be fully transparent, Twitter is probably not the best tool. Still, social media leads must know how to ask the right questions to fully understand the business needs and figure out what's best for that company or brand.
 
“With the C-suite, the expectation is you come in buttoned up, understand the space, and have qualitative and quantitative information to support that,” says Houston. “We're asking them to take a leap of faith and step into this translucency.”
 
She brings on people with diverse backgrounds who are consistently engaging in the space, such as fashion blogger Joanna Bruner, as well as employees who can bring analytical language and thinking to the table.
 
“I've never hired anyone on Studio D with a PR degree,” notes Houston. “One of the things the
C-suite always expects is data; they say, ‘Prove it.' We have a real-life example of the power of being a digital participant in the conversation.”
 
Most important, however, is building trusted partnerships with C-suite and high-level executives.
 
“Those potential employees who get to the heart of what clients are really asking for bring the right communications to the table,” she says. “The relationship part doesn't go away.”

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