Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book Review: Real-Time Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott

I enjoyed every page of this book – well almost every page – the subject of analytics tends to lose me in any book. I enjoyed it to the point that I tweeted David Meerman Scott late Saturday night telling him that I was “loving it”; that the book addressed many of the frustrations I face professionally. He responded to me on Sunday afternoon via Twitter to thank me, and reminded me “real time is a mind-set.” A mind-set I will gladly take on in the communication profession.

Real-Time Marketing and PR tackles real world issues I know others like me have faced in the PR and corporate communication field: road blocks of bureaucracy, lethargy, and fear. The hesitancy to respond to matters in real-time can be painful to any company, particularly to its employees. And the lack of empowerment for employees to publicly defend and promote their company in the discourse of public opinion can be detrimental to corporate culture.

“Big business is designed to move forward according to plan, at a measured and deliberate pace.” (35) Organizations traditionally rely on the slow mechanics of consensus building, conducting studies, legal reviews, practicing caution, and meeting compliance within hierarchal structures. Meanwhile, in the outside world where the fruits of their labor matter most, consumers set the pace, and that pace is lightning fast in the social media realm.

An important concept this book conveys is that social media are only the tools, whereas real-time is a mind-set. Companies cannot presume they are active in the real-time market place just because they have a Twitter account or a Facebook page. The real time mind-set means actively responding to customers or proactively dealing with breaking news about the company before a crisis develops. In order to do this, however, social media must be monitored rigorously – in real time – using social and web analytics tools. Those tools should be integrated into the standard processes of a PR or marketing department, contributing data – such as ratios of positive versus negative commentary about a product – to all decision-making, not just checked in on occasionally. The data these tools collect and filter direct the appropriate message to the best recipient to handle the matter as immediately as possible. On a larger scale, the data provides trend tracking of both the positive and negative commentary, providing immediate insight into current public opinion.

On the customer service front, the real time mind-set requires flexibility and humanity, responding to issues immediately with a guiding principle that keeps the employees’ efforts on message. Consumers do not want to hear from an automaton reciting a script; they want to hear from humans making split-second decisions that the company endorses to satisfy their needs. This means companies need to listen to their public. They need to participate in the public conversations about them. If they don’t speak for themselves, others will, despite their best or worst intentions.

“In a real-time corporate culture everyone is recognized as a responsible adult.” (40) In other words, senior managers need to trust the people they hire to do right by the company, to not let fear of the unknown impede potential sales from a satisfied customer. In top-down traditional management structures, unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. I have witnessed leaders who were slow to respond to the simplest requests, wanting to pass the smallest detail through legal review before a communication could be shared publicly. It’s quite discouraging to the employees when these same leaders claim they want to see everyone as happy collaborators and transparent communicators. The only transparency is evident in their fear of the new ways of doing business. Scott is a fighter on this front, stating, “In the new always-on world of communications, success requires empowering your frontline people to use their own judgment as they engage your customers – in real time.” (63)

“Lawyers are not communicators,” Scott says, “the opinion of your legal staff should be considered, but final decisions should be made by competent real-time communicators.” (136) He recommends the creation of a new C-suite position: the Chief Real-Time Communications Officer. I would welcome this role in my organization. This person would “provide leadership and coordination for a range of real-time activities, starting with the creation of company guidelines. It would include a mandate to ensure compliance and consistency with those guidelines, once established.” (190) This person would interface with legal, marketing, PR, and plethora of other departments to best represent the company at any possible minute of the day. Real time communication is a cross-functional role based in communication, but requires the involvement and buy-in of all other aspects of a business. It fits the mold that every public facet of a business, from a customer service center’s hold music to the paper stock an employee’s business card is printed on, represents the company’s brand. The concept of real-time is no different.

I found Scott’s historical perspective on real time interesting. He explains that only in modern times during the age of mass media, starting in the 1950s, the history of communication was an aberration. “We spent six decades in a bizarre, one-sided, television-centered regime that gave no voice to consumers. But with the rise of the real-time web that era is over.” (215) He explained that, “word of mouth has regained its historic power.” (215)

Real-Time Marketing and PR is a great book tying together the tried and true public relations methodologies of the past century and applying them to the latest communication technologies. I strongly recommend that anyone in the fields of marketing or PR should read this book, seasoned veterans and newcomers alike. Even more so, I recommend this book to any manager feeling trepidation about taking their company into the new way of doing real-time business.