09 Nov 2015

The internet has undeniably changed communications. The way a message is sent, received, interpreted and shared has been irreversibly altered with the creation of numerous channels of communication. Social media’s stratospheric rise in popularity means it now plays an intrinsic role in communications. But what are the new challenges it has created for PR professionals?


All companies have an obligation to ensure sensitive information is protected. Whistleblowing used to be a reasonably rare phenomenon, with the publication covering the story having to verify sources and consider potential liability before publishing. Social media provides disgruntled employees, consumers or hackers the ideal unedited platform to speak out against a company or share personal details. Online anonymity means this can be done without personal consequence. British entertainment retailer HMV experienced this issue first hand. When employees were told they were losing their jobs, a disgruntled employee issued a number of critical tweets using the company’s official Twitter handle and the hashtag #hmvXFactorFiring. The tweets were visible for 25 minutes before being removed, more than enough time to be widely shared and picked up by multiple news sources.


Previously an unhappy consumer would only share negative experiences with friends and family. Social media allows for a user to express a critical view immediately with the potential to reach a significant audience including content hungry media. The majority of corporates now have designated customer service social media presences to manage issues, deflecting potentially negative stories from their corporate image. In 2013, a significant volume of social media users called for a boycott of Black Friday and ‘Gray Thursday’ in the US, citing employee rights and the wish to preserve Thanksgiving as a family holiday. Several retailers, including Walmart and Target, were targeted directly and a number of widely circulating hashtags were created to express discontent.


Social media has provided a platform for previously passive individuals to voice their opinion. The pool of stakeholders who have the potential to pose a risk to an organization’s reputation has increased significantly. If a pharmaceutical company launches a new heart disease drug, they can no longer only worry about what is being written by journalists. The organization also needs to take into consideration the view of various other stakeholders including cardiologists, health care professionals and even bloggers affected by heart disease. The immense scale of the internet means information may be available without the company’s knowledge. Increasing access to smartphones allows a large number of people to report on an issue in real time. The advent of social media has resulted in anyone with internet access able to pose a potential risk to reputation, with companies now being forced to respond to online pressure. In April of this year, pressure from well followed US based blogger ‘The Food Babe’, through a multi-platform campaign, led Kraft to remove additives from its mac & cheese recipe.


Social media has provided activists with the ideal platform to coordinate a large number of people using limited resources. Large environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, use multiple platforms, including Facebook, to share details of a protest with prospective attendees. In April, several activist groups organised the protest ‘Shell No’ to oppose the Port of Seattle’s agreement to house Shell’s Arctic drilling fleet during the spring. Opposition to Shell’s presence in Seattle has continued since this initial response with ShellNo Action Council’s Facebook page, which posts regular updates, having over 3,000 likes. NGOs increasingly utilize online driven campaigns to generate support.


A crisis can now be amplified in 140 characters. If an issue is initially ignited by traditional media sources, it is now fuelled, at least in part, by online discussion. BP experienced this phenomenon in 2010 with its Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Long after mainstream media stopped daily reporting, environmentalists, local residents and bloggers kept the momentum through regular online posts. Even now, five years on from the spill, it is mentioned daily on social media. Observations can quickly be reported as fact on social media, and there is increasing evidence of online discussions filtering through to shape the interests of mainstream media. Traditional media outlets and journalists, faced with being bypassed, use Twitter as a first response platform to share information in real time. A crisis may not be social generated but online reaction certainly reduces the ability for an issue to be contained.

We are exhibiting at PRSA 2015. If you want to hear more about how Social360 can help with your digital concerns, come and visit us at Stand 808.

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Sophie O’Donoghue

Content Manager

Sophie’s experience of the sector includes roles at a national magazine, a PR firm and a marketing agency. She started her career in account management at a leading menswear supplier. Sophie is also a regular contributor to an international affairs think tank, as well as various politically focused blogs.

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