How to keep command of online communications

The key to controlling the proliferation of online media and not being controlled by it can be found in a 10-point agenda for enlightened governance, says David Bowen.

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Time to reset the way online communications are managed. If it doesn’t happen, there could be chaos – we are already seeing the signs.
The problem is that you can talk about the fabulous opportunities from a mass of social media; but you can also talk about the nightmare of channel proliferation. You can talk about the excitement of the mobile web; or you can talk about the complexity of delivering content on an ever-expanding variety of screen sizes. You should, of course, in each case talk about both – to notice only the first without the second is a big mistake. Life is getting a whole lot more complicated as channels and devices multiply, and something needs to be done to keep control.
The current FT Bowen Craggs Index found that several web estates are cracking. Hewlett-Packard with its duplicated newsrooms, Wells Fargo with its separate history sites. It also found generally poor control of social media channels: Procter & Gamble, for example, with its three video sites and two Facebook pages for European jobseekers.
It is easy to see why. Small teams of online experts are being asked to do ever more. There may be plenty of extra social media managers, but the teams at the centre, the people who can keep control, are not expanding. Governance – that boring but most important aspect of management – is coming under acute strain.
When we hold get-togethers of online managers, nine times of 10 whatever the topic the conversation ends up discussing how to manage and work with bosses, colleagues and agencies. It’s the governance, stupid, as Bill Clinton didn’t say.

10 things to do for better online governance

Here are 10 ideas on how to fix the problem before it is too late – they are aimed at senior management, because decisions like these need to be made at the highest level.
1. Ensure that a senior manager has oversight of online communications
He or she may be head of comms, but does not have to be. The important point is that this is a person who has an interest, who is prepared to oversee the governance structure and who has sufficient weight to make everyone – including the people at the very top – take notice and keep to the party line.
2. Make sure the governance structure has formal elements but also works informally
The structure needs elements such as a high-level and a nitty-gritty committee, But people in communications, marketing, IT, legal and other departments should be in regular contact, flowing best practice between them.
3. Install a powerful team of online communications experts at the centre, reporting to the senior manager
They should act as internal consultants, offering carrots (such as training guidelines and core content) but also wielding sticks. These are the people who will stop duplication, control the proliferation of channels, restrain business units from doing their own thing regardless of group needs and stop lawyers jumping in without understanding the consequences.
They will also be in direct charge of the main corporate website and channels. The quality of these people must be terrific – they have to understand both business and technology, they need to pick which trends matter and which do not, and they must be able to get their own way (one web manager said her main business tool was ‘charm’). Some of the best online managers in large corporations have been made redundant recently; this is madness.
4. Include all online channels in the same governance structure
It makes no sense to separate corporate websites and social media channels. This will raise eyebrows in companies where this already happens – but we have seen sufficient fracturing and even embarrassment to know it is a poor idea. This is not to say that marketing teams cannot run their own social media campaigns. But keep tight hold of anything that could affect the reputation of the organisation as a whole. That includes customer service teams who manage social media channels: they are the frontline in your reputation defence.
5. Use agencies for what agencies are good at
That does not include managing an online estate. Take as much advice as you like, exploit third-party expertise, but have a strong team in-house. Agencies worth their salt will appreciate clear direction.
6. Give IT a core role
In the early days of the web, sites were run by techies. It was right to move that power away from them, but the effect was they were too often marginalised. Now a wave of questions is coming from the proliferation of channels and devices that needs real technical expertise to answer. How can we make our sites work on all devices? How do we integrate with social, video and web channels? How do we manage them all in the most efficient way? These cannot and should not be answered by communications people – they need to involve the experts from the beginning.
7. Ensure you have online-friendly lawyers in house
They need to understand that time has collapsed in the new world of digital reputation management. If you wait until you have a crisis before seeking them out, it will be too late.
8. Ensure you have a quick response mechanism
You must be able to react very fast if a crisis blows up online (it could be real, it could be fiction, it is still a crisis). See our recent commentaries on the BBC and on mobile broadcasting.
9. Ensure your group’s organisation is fit for purpose
Should the press office just talk to journalists or should it have a broader reputation-management role? Does the division between corporate communications and marketing still make sense? The old fashioned structures – the silos – may not any longer.
10. Ensure resources are sufficient
This is the last point, because ‘throw money at it’ is absolutely not the right approach. But relatively small amounts, properly spent, can protect your organisation’s reputation. Return on the investment is hard to measure, but can you afford not make it?

First published 28 November, 2012
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