Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Mastering the art of social media communications: Substance over form, message over medium

If your message is worth sharing, you can trust netizens will do the job for you.

The more valuable or interesting the content, the faster it will spread. And when the message blazes through cyberspace like wildfire, your message would have gone viral.

A good example is the picture of the maid who carried the fullpack of a Singaporean full-time National Serviceman (NSF). Many of you would have seen it. No need to repost.

Here we have the example of an image with no author, subjects still unnamed, a picture with no caption, and material with no press officer or media plan.

Still, it went viral and made the news in the city-state and abroad.

Mainstream print and broadcast media reported on that now-infamous image. The number of eyeballs that single image attracted in the virtual world and the impact it made in the real world exemplify the pervasive reach of social media.

Mastering the intricacies of social media goes beyond understanding the technical aspects of every function on Facebook, every iPad app or having the largest number of followers on one's Twitter account.

Newsmakers who want to master the art of social media should concentrate on the basics. This means paying attention to substance over the form, message over medium. Let the blogosphere do the rest.

This may sound simple, indeed commonsense. But doing so will demand a mindset change from control freak newsmakers who cherry pick the reporters allowed to show up at their press conferences.

Some are even known to go to the extent of underlining key paragraphs of their speeches or press communiques so journalists won't miss the news point.

Substance over form also means ditching stunts such as being the fastest to respond on Facebook or answering queries on one's Facebook discussion wall in the wee hours of the morning. This pace cannot be sustained. When it drops, netizens will notice and your lack of attention will come back to haunt you.

Ignore journalists who spin stories like these because being quick on the draw is meaningless if the content of your message says nothing or is choked with motherhood statements.

A friend once mentioned that he found it amusing how officers in the Defence Ministry tended to add all sorts of bells and whistles to their Powerpoint presentations - animated text, pictures, video clips etc - instead of keeping the messages clear, easy to understand and remember.

In the social media realm, it is all to easy to get obsessed over every function that a virtual medium offers, rather than focus on what you really want to tell your audience.

Remember too that a Facebook presence does not equate to an effective social media presence. Facebook may be today's flavour of the day and medium of choice for social media advocates. But so was Friendster and ICQ not so long ago.

If one concentrates on ensuring messages are shared proactively and ground sentiments heard and addressed, then that message will spread whatever medium may excite us today or years from now.

What we're seeing today is the tendency for certain political figures to use their Facebook pages to connect with people. These virtual updates are then dutifully reported by the mainstream media, which is the reverse of how government media relations officers are trained to run the show.

Never ditch the traditional media for the gimmicky, 24/7 reach of virtual world communications.

Your communications strategy on red hot talking points, such as housing prices, could just as well be explained with the time-tested combo of background briefings for reporters/editors, a clear and concise news release plus fact sheet, a door-stop interview, with a news story and commentary piece written for good measure to give the background to the news. Commentaries allow your advocates to shape hearts and minds by injecting opinions and viewpoints that could subtly influence readers.

Avoid theatrics such as one-time only online chats. If one's grassroots intelligence and feedback mechanisms work as they should, one need not rely on the brutal candor gleaned from such real-time virtual chats. The worst they can do is make netizens feel used as a PR prop, with their queries amassed like virtual tributes to show how engaged and plugged in the newsmaker is.

Listening and engaging netizens demands a certain tenacity to accommodate viewpoints that run counter to one's point of view (POV).

The "noise" generated during discussions, especially when people can mask their identity with fake personas, means you should be ready to hear all POVs. Yes, even contrarian ones from what one MP calls the "lunatic fringe".

In the real world, half your battle is won by using the MICA press accreditation system to screen your scribes. This does not work in the virtual world.

Seeking a semblance of control, some have taken to driving hecklers and unfriendly voices from their websites. The act of sanitising comments on one's Facebook page by purging hecklers who get on one's nerves is not recommended. It will show you have low or no tolerance for dissenting voices or an impatience at consensus building with well meaning netizens who may hold stubbornly to their POV through lack of knowledge or insufficient guidance.

All it does is cull your discussants to suck ups confederates who tell you what you want to hear. This will leave you blindsided at a time when accurate, relevant and timely ground sensing of the thoughts, feelings and concerns of heartlanders is much desired, yet hard to obtain.

And as residents from the Maplewoods condo will tell you, the art of effective communications requires active intervention at all junctures when your residents' living space will be affected.

If you can't hide a hole in the road big enough to accommodate a tunnel boring machine, tell residents what to expect before the excavators move in.

Holding belated town hall sessions and presenting them a fait accompli, and putting the residents on a guilt trip for delaying national infrastructure by a month is a sure way of damaging goodwill. If there's even one road traffic accident despite official assurances, how do you think the Maplewoods residents will react?

With Singapore's 12th Parliament elected during the 2011 Generation Election (GE 2011) due to hold its first session on 10 October, netizens are already talking about the rematch during GE 2016.

Singapore's ruling People's Action Party has evidently taken heed of the impact of social media during GE 2011.

Former party chairman Lim Boon Heng said on 22 July during an appreciation dinner for retired MPs: "Whoever masters the art of communication gets his message across to the people. No one has matched founding Secretary-General and our first Prime Minister in speaking at public rallies. He mastered the medium of the day, first radio, then television. Today there is a new medium - social media - that has to be mastered."

Substance over form, message over medium is what your netizens voters citizens would appreciate, please.

Anything with more PR spin would be a virtual world version of Chinese street opera known as wayang - old school and entertaining in a quaint way, but a dying art.


Anonymous said...

I have deep misgivings over Tuesday's NSF death. From the times stated in Mindef's statement, one wonders if a helicopter evacuation could have saved the NSF's life.

On his first day, every recruit is shown a video detailing the medical resources available should evacuation be necessary. They usually laugh when the Super Puma is shown. I wonder if the procedures here are the real butt of the joke.

Anonymous said...

There's an outfield training suspension in effect due to the two incidents.

Similar to the last training suspension when several incidents occurred within a short spate of time.