Web 2.0: Stakes of the E-reputation for Public Relations Professionals
Francine Charest, Ph.D. ,Information and communication department, Université Laval, Québec, Canada.
Anthony Doucet, Second year student in public communication, majoring in public relations, Université Laval, Québec, Canada, pp.108-116. http://www.bledcom.com/sites/default/files/BledCom_Zbornik2013_web_low-1%5Bsmallpdf.com%5D.pdf
A new concept, the “e-reputation”, has recently emerged following the enormous growth of Web 2.0 sharing tools. Given the importance of this phenomenon within social media, we will observe and analyze the issues therein with respect to public relations. We draw a qualitative narrative of the e-reputation from a sample of North American organizations presently active in social media. In addition to a review of relevant literature, we also conduct semi-structured interviews with public relations professionals and community managers. This allows us to observe the many ways that professionals affect the e-reputation of their organization and analyze the impact these activities have.
Using social media; communication; public relations management; semi-structured interviews; community managers; issues concerning e-reputation.
Short biography of Francine Charest, Ph.D.
Francine Charest is a professor of communication and Director of Research of Social Media in Public Relations at the Université Laval, Québec, Canada. Francine.firstname.lastname@example.org
Referred to as the “digital image” of an individual or an organization, the concept of the “e-reputation” emerged from the explosion in use of sharing tools on various Web 2.0 platforms. Heiderich (2009, online) defines the e-reputation as “the act of influencing perception [...] and legitimizing [a subject matter] to a wide audience, executed by controlling individual and collective behaviour of Internet users, in our society of mainstream social networks.” Given the importance of this particular phenomenon, which results in “conversations” over social media, we are keen to observe and analyze the professional and organizational issues therein as they apply to the field of public relations. We use a qualitative narrative to describe its use in a sample of North American organizations who actively participate in social media. We employ semi-structured interviews with professionals in public relations, thought leaders and community managers. We also analyze constitutive documents such as policies governing the use of social media (Dubois, Pelletier, Poirier, 2011), action plans for crisis management (Bloch, 2012), and comment management processes (Charest, Gauthier, Grenon, 2011) in the Observatory of Social Media in Public Relations (French: OMSRP). This allows us to observe the methods used by communication professionals on Facebook and Twitter and analyze their impact on the e-reputation of organizations.
Concepts : Context and Definition
The word reputation comes from the Latin “reputatio”, meaning “evaluation”. It refers to a social assessment that depends not only on the self-created “identity” of a person or organization, but also its perception in the eyes of others. In social media terms, e-reputation is an extension of the digital identity “abstracted from the sentiment of comments and opinions published on the Internet, most notably in social networks” (Balagué, Fayon, 2011, p. 75).
In general, reputation is built from interactions or “conversations” from individuals, whether solicited or not, (Bonneau, 2011) and who have an opinion concerning a particular aspect of the organization, either its image or its actions. In other words, it is built from the “communicative actions” (Habermas, 1987) of organizations.
Careful management of social media communication can build “sympathy capital” for organizations (Maisonneuve, 2010) or “the amount of antipathy which increases or decreases depends on its past behaviour” (Bloch, 2012, p. 133). Managing this sensitive communication, which if not done properly can lead to a communications crisis, assumes that communication professionals (in this case, community managers (Stenger, Coutant, 2011)), need to develop the skills to favourably influence these online interactions and minimize the risk of a potential crisis (Heiderich, 2011). For Roux-Dufort (2003), crises are not random events, but processes that develop over time, stemming from the continued failure to act on warning signs. In the same vein, Libaert (2010, p. 9) defines crisis as “the phase reached after prolonged errors, jeopardizing the reputation and stability of a company”.
Balagué and Fayon (2011) point out that the onset of a crisis is often the catalyst that prompts a company to acknowledge the existence of and develop a policy for the “e-reputation”. Detecting early warning signs of these dysfunctional situations, anticipating and preventing the risk of adverse opinion to protect its e-reputation (Bloch, 2012) is an absolute necessity. “Any organization, whether private or public, regardless of its size or industry is potentially subject to a major crisis that could undermine its reputation, or even – as the two are often related – make it disappear,” according Libaert (in Heiderich 2010, p.V).
In the context of sensitive communication, managing the e-reputation is a major challenge for organizations. Community managers fill the critical role of managing these delicate situations to the best of their ability (Bloch, 2012). In addition, professionals must carry out this responsibility within a limited amount of time. Sometimes, the reaction time is so short that it is virtually impossible for managers to react to a conversation (Motulsky, Breduillieard, Cordelier, 2011).
Given the important role that public relations professionals fill in managing sensitive communication in social media, what are the fundamental foundations or models on which to base a method of delicately managing e-reputation? What important guidelines should communication professionals follow?
Theoretical foundations of e-reputation and sensitive communication
In 1984, the American researcher Grunig established the theoretical foundations of one of the most important contributions in the field of public relations, according to the research community. The Theory of Excellence in Public Relations, more commonly known as “two-way symmetrical communication” since 2002. “This model identified two factors essential to the profession, communications and relationships, and laid the groundwork for what would become standard Web 2.0 practice twenty years later” (Charest, Bédard, 2013, p. 37).
This Excellence Model is can be broken into three other types of professional practice models: development, public information, and two-way symmetrical communication. Two-way symmetrical communication is characterized by the use of persuasion, as the exchange of information is not equal between the two communicating parties.
Originally, adoption of Grunig’s Excellence Model into communication policies was slow, as it involved “an organization listening to the needs and interests of the public, [replacing] the use of persuasion with understanding, making for a fair exchange for both parties” says Bérubé (2012, p. 32). “The demonstration of the benefits of this model has earned him international recognition, as evidenced by ISO 31000” (Bérubé, 2012, p. 35).
This stance on dialog thus confers the role of “community manager” in the communication process upon relationship professionals, to establish a reciprocal exchange as the basis for trustful “relationships”, Grunig’s second important model factor. According to the author, the two- way symmetrical communication model should be applied to establish these relationships. In an perfect work, this would be the type of communication pattern practiced by PR or community managers in the “conversations” found in social media.
The central concept of “relationship” has been a fundamental theory in public relations, relationship management. Developed by Ledingham and Bruning in 1998, this theory is based on five indicators: level of trust, openness, involvement, investment and commitment. Kugler (2010, p. 18) describes the characteristics of these indicators as follows:
- Level of Trust: The organization does what it said it would.
- Openness: It shares its plans for the future with the general public.
- Involvement: It contributes to the well-being of the community.
- Investment: It participates financially.
- Commitment: It is actively involved in improving the well-being of its community over a long time horizon.
For Boussicaud and Dupin (2012), the last indicator, commitment, must be an objective for organizations using the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic and Timely). The purpose of this model is specifically to “avoid making promises it could not hope to keep in order to placate the masses. Any period of calm gained would be short and would only serve to mask an impending crisis” (p. 56).
“Communication” and “relationship” factors during a crisis
These two important factors of Grunig model are turned upside down during a communications crisis in social media. According to Bloch (2012, p. 27) it is an “asymmetric communication [model] or crisis 2.0 [which gives] organizations or internet groups the means to overcome their small size and threaten a company’s long-term reputation”. The author argues that companies communicate in three main types of environments: symmetrical, uneven and asymmetric.
- Symmetrical (may the best man win): A clear debate between two parties.
- Uneven (the strong get stronger): One of the players has a significant advantage over theother in terms of resources or means.
- Asymmetric (the ends justify the means): One of the players seeks to compensate forhis inferior resources by using surprise and all methods at his disposal. (Bloch, 2012, p. 28, 29).
The goals of the last two strategies, characterized by an asymmetric situation, are to either stigmatize the behaviour of an organization or render it dysfunctional. The main target of their tactics is public opinion. While this kind of strategy has existed for a long time, it takes on new life with the invention of Web 2.0. Traditionally, influencing public opinion required control of the media and relayed by opinion leaders with abundant skills and resources. However, social media has changed the situation completely: public opinion can now be influenced on these new media platforms by people with very little means or training.
Sensitive Communication Strategies to build e-reputation : Digital Darwinism
During the crisis lifecycle, each phase of the process must have its own communication strategy. Roux-Dufort (2003) identifies four phases of a crisis: the warning signs, the trigger, the acute phase, and finally the recovery or capitalization of the crisis. The author insists that it is “the sum of vulnerabilities and ignorance” which provides the fuel for a potential crisis (Heiderich (2010, p. 9). With the emergence of social media and the speed with which viral content can ruin a reputation, organizations must prepare for crises by identifying potential risks as early as possible in the process and developing communication strategies to minimize the damage along the way. A good starting point for these organizations is to rethink their internal structures to better manage their external communication.
To this end, a 2001 study by the Altimeter Group shows that 76% of the crises they observed could have been avoided or minimized if the companies had invested internally (http://bit.ly/ Qqojkv). “Thinking that social media are new communication paths doesn’t makes sense if it is impossible to implement the actions.” Organizations therefore have no choice but to “adapt their internal structure to facilitate the communication process” (Boussicaud, Dupin, 2012, p. 61). “Adapt or die”, said Brian Solis in his book The End of Business as Usual, which comes from the theory of Digital Darwinism (http://bit.ly/ynXw3a). However, this is often where the challengies lies.
Identifying authoritative contacts who are able to provide a coherent response, ensuring that no element capable of sabotaging internal efforts be put in place and ensuring that community managers can express themselves quickly as in charge and without hierarchical barriers, are all issues that should be considered and dealt with ahead of time. And as always, “the beginning is more than half of the goal,” as asserted by Aristotle (Boussicaud, Dupin, 2012, p. 62).
In addition to a adapting new guidelines for the communication process, the drive to use them must be also instilled in the organization’s culture. An implicit strategy of this is developing proper social media usage models as a guide for community managers on how to respond to the occasional public unrest. For example, Boussicaud and Dupin (2012) presented a social media model to Intel divided into three parts: ensuring integrity in their online presence through disclosure, protecting confidential data with openness and honesty, and finally, using common sense to prevent conversations between the organization and the public from spiralling out of control (p. 65-66).
To this end, Charest et al. (2011) of Observing Social Media in Public Relations (the OMSRP) (http://bit.ly/XLnt6d) from Laval University have developed a strategic process of responses and comment management that takes these factors into account. From the beginning, the editorial policy must be well defined, followed by a social media usage policy. Once these management tools are in place, the responsibility to provide customer service and manage the social media presence should be entrusted to the communication professionals reporting to the public relations senior management. The process first takes into account the guidelines on content that can be posted or excluded (such as removing abuse) on these platforms, a method of ranking comments (positive, neutral or negative) and recommending which action (if any) to take for each and how quickly. In the event of a sensitive subject or disgruntled user, the OMSRP recommends answering instantly or within an hour, while at the same time attempting to direct the person away from the organization’s social media platforms. Bloch (2012) recommends avoiding the risk that the community manager and customer service become disconnected.
It is necessary that the two work at the same time. While the community manager normally directs a disgruntled customer to contact customer service to manage the problem, he should not do this while the latter is unreachable or takes three weeks to respond by mail. When the crisis results from “organized” users [...] it is no longer an isolated event, but an attack on the company (p. 176).
The situation becomes even more delicate where the organization must be ready to face any eventuality in order to manage the situation with regard to its most important issue, its e-reputation.
Crisis management in social media
Although there are more-or-less sophisticated tools and processes available to organizations, it is more important is to identify ahead of time the key people to form a crisis response team when an event escalates. Just like a board of directors, the crisis response team includes subject matter experts who have authority, expertise and answers regarding the problem at stake, a communications manager, and of course executives from the highest levels of organization, though not necessarily the President “in order to allow sufficient strategic distance. The latter will be kept informed and will validate major decisions, but without integration to the team”, said Libaert (2010, p. 38). At the very least, to manage Internet crises effectively, “sensitive topics must be prevented from being picked up by the mainstream media”, says Bloch (2012, p. 175). The Festival d’été de Québec learned its lesson in February 2013, during its online ticket pre-sale for the next season. The problem was apparently resulted from poor forecasting of the high demand from users (70 000 in a few hours) trying to take advantage of the pre-sale. The organizers failed to “reserve” capacity for increased traffic on their website, which would have entailed significant costs. Having either “ignored” or taken the risk of not having the capacity required for this major surge, the site became congested and went down for several hours. This sparked the fury of the Internet, who turned to Facebook and Twitter to voice their frustrations. The mainstream media reprinted the comments they left, which made headlines for a few days. This in turn significantly discredited the general reputation of the organization.
Very early in the process of a crisis on the Internet, is recommended to identify the main voice of the frustration. Knowing what it is, what it says, who the key players are and its history will identify the “natural” hotspots of crisis, which can then be addressed ahead of time (Bloch, 2012, p.178). This will avoid having to deal with the unnecessary risks caused by “group think”, or group decisions, which are based on a subjective or incorrect assessment of the situation and in turn are likely to involve individuals seeking unity in protesting a wrong decision (Boussicaud, Dupin, 2012, p. 71).
Finally, learning how, when and where to speak has a profound effect on how events unfold. Twitter is the perfect tool to concisely manage urgent information and effectively reach the large number of journalists and opinion leaders with a large presence on the platform. However, any mistake from the community manager can instantly become a “meme”..
In summary, community managers need to be listening to each viewpoint in a transparent and respectful way, and by doing so will facilitate two-way symmetrical communication.
The methodology uses various data collection techniques. In the first step, a review of the literature was conducted on the e-reputation in the field of public relations, management of sensitive communications and crisis and relationship management. In addition, 16 semi-structured interviews were conducted with community managers active in social media working in public and private organizations in the province of Quebec. Participants were recruited through websites, social media groups and word-of-mouth, as community management is a relatively small and interconnected business.
Recruitment took place during the period of December 2012 to mid-February 2013. Four pre- studies took place in early December 2012 to validate the methodology and research tools. These interviews were then included in the study because of the lack of change in the makeup of the pre-study and the quality of information received. The interviews were conducted between mid- December 2012 and mid-February 2013. They were conducted by videoconference or in person and were captured with the software Cam Recorder and a Web HD Pro C920 camera. The consent form signed by the participants and the registrations were kept confidential in accordance with standards approved by the Ethics and Research of the Université Laval.
The interview structure was created from the following four elements:
- Management tools used to perform the day’s activities, evaluate its presence on social media and its rank its use therein. We, among others, believe in social media usage policy (Dubois et al., 2011), and strategic list of answers for comment management (Charest et al., 2011).
- Strategies to use in sensitive communication situations for each of the four stages of a crisis lifecycle (warning signs, trigger, acute phase and recovery) according to the theory of Roux- Dufort (2003).
- The socio-demographic profile of the community manager and a description of their organization.
- The importance given to the five indicators of theory of managing relationships of Leindgham and Bruning (1998): level of trust, openness, involvement, investment and commitment. The importance of these five criteria was then coded in a grid on a Likert scale from 1 to 5 (1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest).
We note that all participants have at least 18 months experience in community management, are employed in communications or marketing, and had all previously managed at least one episode of sensitive communication on social media. The group consisted of seven women and nine men, three-quarters were between 25 and 34 years old, three were between 35 and 44 years old and one was between 18 and 24 years old. Three quarters of the participants had a bachelor’s degree, and another third had a master’s degree. Two thirds of the community managers had also studied communications, public relations or marketing. Others were trained in other fields such as history or administration. Participants managed active communities in a wide variety of organizations. In total, 6/16 had worked in public administration, 6/16 in agencies or on their own, 2/16 for universities and the remaining 2/16 in a non-profit organization. They managed communities with between approximately 1000 and 50 000 users. Almost all participants used Facebook and Twitter (15/16 in both cases), half of them used YouTube and a quarter used a blog.
During the semi-structured interviews with community managers, we were able to test the application in the professional practices of the model outline in the Theory of Excellence in Public Relations established by Grunig (2002), and the weight they placed in the Theory of Managing Relationships by Ledingham and Bruning (1998). The balance of power in the relationship established between two communicating parties when sensitive communication or a crisis occurs, as well as process and relationship management tools were also taken into account. This was in order to analyze the impact of these practices on their organization’s e-reputation.
The existence of power
Grunig’s Theory of Excellence in Public Relations (2002) argues that, in a two-way symmetrical model, communication relies on a fair exchange between two parties based primarily on understanding and effective relationship management. Despite making efforts to maintain a relationship of trust as in the two-way symmetrical model, the question remains as to whether there is an uneven balance of power between users and the community manager, which can lead to a two-way asymmetric model, or crisis 2.0 (Bloch, 2012).
The case studies of sensitive communication all started with comments from one or more users on a social media platform, which served as a trigger for sensitive communication, according to the different steps of Roux-Dufort (2003). Comments were most often related to a problem with the website or social media organization (4/16), related to an act of the organization outside of social media (6/16) and related to an issue outside the organization (5/16), as presented in Table 1.
Table 1 : Cases Studies of Sensitive Communication (Number of occurences in 16 cases)
Warning Signs :
- Situation predicted by the organization : 11
- Active preparation for the situation : 5
- Protests on Facebook (in connection with the website or the activity of the organization on social media) : 4
- Protests on Facebook (problem outside the web, but in connection with the organization) : 7
- Reviews on Facebook (disagreement on an issue outside the organization) : 5
- Reviews on Twitter : 4
Acute Phase :
- Do nothing : 3
- Moderate comments : 7
- Answer questions : 7
- Solve a problem related to the organization’s web presence : 2
- Solve a problem outside the web, but in connection with the organization : 4
- Publish an apology or an appeal for calm and respect : 8
- Internet research led to the crisis : 5
- Establishment of a crisis : 5
- The crisis is set by the organization : 8
- Positive messages of users : 4
- The crisis itself dies and falls into oblivion : 8
- Created or updated management tools : 6
- Learning through community manager : 8
- Learning by the organization : 6
- The crisis demonstrated existing methods were appropriate : 5
Most situations took place on Facebook, but four also involved the use of Twitter. We note that sensitive situations on Twitter were generally less intense than on Facebook. Community managers also claimed that they often had easier situations on Twitter, as the platform is based on immediacy, where comments are in their own thread, instead of leaving a trail on the organization’s page. This comes back to the ideas of Bloch (2012) when he recommends the use of Twitter as a priority for community managers in crisis management.
Thus, it appears that users actually have more power than community managers, because they can:
- Create sensitive situations by posting messages on social media;
- Quickly rally other users to their cause;
- Publish content beyond the control of the organization.
We can nevertheless qualify this power relationship, by realizing that the power of Internet users often depends on their number. Thus, in the eight case studies with an incident of the sensitive communication, the situation died down after the community manager either chose to ignore a user’s comment or delete the abusive/hateful comments. We note that in all cases where the comment was deleted, the decision was based on the netiquette outlined in the organization’s social media usage policy and posted on its social media platforms (Dubois et al., 2011). This is intended to ensure a civilized management of communication and preserve the organization’s e-reputation. Thus, the organization usually has some control, either by blocking the user or by removing the comment. However, these techniques cannot be used after the message gets out to a wider audience, when the damage may already be done.
Despite the existence of this power struggle, it is worth mentioning that the community manager nevertheless has some control. In half of the cases, the sensitive situation is resolved after the moderator takes certain actions; whether answering the questions of the community, posting apology messages, or moderating vulgar comments, as shown in the diagram of comment management in Charest et al, (2011). In four such cases, users took the time to thank the community manager for the manner in which the situation was handled. This professionalism indicates that establishing feedback methods and interacting with users are good tools to better manage crisis situations.
The importance of “openness” and “Level of Trust” inrelationships
During the interview, the community managers noted the importance they attached to the five indicators of Ledingham and Bruning (1998) on social media, as presented in Table 2.
Table 2 : Importance of relationship management indicators (Total 16)
- Openness : Very high, 11, High, 5, Medium, 0, Low, 0, Very Low, 0.
- Level of Thrust : Very high, 8, High, 6, Medium, 2, Low, 0, Very Low, 0.
- Implication : Very high, 4, High, 7, Medium, 5, Low, 0, Very Low, 0.
- Investment : Very high, 1, High, 2, Medium, 11, Low, 2, Very Low, 0.
- Commitment : Very high, 3, High, 8, Medium, 5, Low, 0, Very Low, 0.
At first glance, it appears that “openness” is the most important indicator for the majority of community managers, as 11 gave it a ranking of “very high” and 5 gave a ranking of “high”. Some have said that openness was the primary reason for their presence on social media. We note, however, that many qualified their position on openness by explaining that, although openness and honesty were values placed on these platforms, it did not mean that the organization had a responsibility to distribute content which did not benefit it.
In second place in terms of importance was “level of trust”, with 8 participants who ranked its importance “very high”, and 6 “high.” However, community managers did not qualify their position on level of trust, as with openness. They often explained that the credibility on social media of their organization depended largely on its level of trust, which came from the accuracy of its statements and the confidence placed in it by its community.
Lastly, the “implication”, “investment” and “commitment” indicators generally received a ranking between “average” and “high”. While they were not rejected by community managers, they were not viewed with the same importance. In general, these three indicators were seen as useful for increasing the size of the community or building support, while the openness and level of trust were instead seen as the main pillars of a community on the web. However, we also note that despite its importance, commitment is left in the background by most community managers, who do not necessarily have vision or long-term goals for their use of social media, contrary to the actions prescribed by Boussicaud and Dupin (2012).
Warning signs, communication guidelines and learning
As Heiderich (2010) and Roux-Dufort (2003) remind us, crises are generally better managed if action is taken before they occur. The same is true for social media, but community managers often have significantly less time to react than a traditional public relations officer. In the case studies, 11 community managers recognized warning signs, but only five took action to prepare for managing sensitive communication.
We note that in the five cases, the community managers also established a rudimentary crisis response team, or at least consulted and involved several colleagues to help resolve the sensitive situation. According to Bloch (2012), a good way to prevent a crisis is to quickly identify opinion leaders in the community and seek out these individuals. Again, only five community managers led such actions. Recall that an organization must integrate these leaders into its organizational culture and adapt a matching internal communication structure to manage their presence on social media and survive, according to Boussicaud and Dupin (2012) and as advocated by Brian Solis in the Digital Darwinism theory drawn from the paradigm Adapt or Die (2011). However, less than half of the community managers interviewed had adopted new internal communication structure.
On the other hand, if we look at case studies focusing on the recovery and capitalization (after the acute phase of a crisis according to Roux-Dufort (2003)) of a crisis lifecycle, we note that in six cases the situation taught the organization a lesson. Of these six cases, the situation led to the creation or updating of management tools of social media (i.e., the development of netiquette or a Terms or Use policy).
This shows that in less than half of the case studies, the organization capitalized on the situation to improve its use of social media. This suggests that a culture of adapting and change is gradually beginning to be understood and put into practice within the internal communications departments of organizations.
Finally, we note that three quarters of the community managers felt that their organization had sufficiently integrated social media into its culture. We note that these comments came from community managers themselves, and should be considered biased opinions compared to other professionals in the organization, if they had been part of the study.
Management tools for sensitive communication or crises
Developing tools is a good way for an organization to prevent a crisis, either by monitoring methods or copying standard practices on social media. An inventory of the tools used by community managers is presented in Table 3.
Table 3 : Management Tools (Number of occurences in 16 interviews)
Monitoring Tools :
- Tweetdeck : 9
- Google Alerts : 12
- Hootsuite : 8
- Radian 6 : 3
Assessment Tools :
- Facebook Statistics : 13
- Google Analytics : 10
Document Management :
- Governance plan : 1
- Policy or strategy for using social media : 12
- Management scheme comments : 3
- Editorial calender : 14
- Ethics charter : 5
It should be noted that the monitoring tools used by most participants are Tweetdeck and Google Alerts. These tools are both free, while Radian 6 is used mostly by private organizations, like agencies. The majority of community managers we met worked from a strategic policy for social media use (12/16). An editorial calendar is also a firmly established professional practice (14/16).
Some tools however are still not widely used, despite their relevance. This includes a code of ethics governing social media use and strategic documents of responses, for comment management. The tool is very useful for both organizations with only one community manager, who may be absent, or for a team of several community managers working together on one account for the same organization. Organizations, in addition to the designated community manager, must standardize their social media communication. These new methods, in addition to the internal communication structure proposed by Boussicaud and Dupin (2012), are likely to respond to these new needs of social media use.
As a final point, only one community manager indicated the use of a forward looking governance plan in their policies governing social media use. According to the manager, a plan with a clear policy governing communication management on social media with regards to the strategies and actions to take is an essential tool for strategic planning, just as a comprehensive communication policy is needed in any organization.
Conclusion : Discussion, limitations, and validity
The results of the survey of the importance of “openness” and “level of trust” to community managers in their professional practice of social media, seems to indicate the relevance of at least two of the five indicators outlined by Ledignham and Bruning (1998) in their Theory of Relationship Management (the other three being involvement, investment and commitment). In addition, community managers who want to prove that they manage relationships with openness and honesty tend to apply the two-way symmetrical model developed by Grunig in 1984.
Most community managers also said that building a strong community was more important than a large reputation on social media. This once again demonstrates a desire to “connect” with users, as said by Solis (2011). We note though, that some community managers who work for governments do not seek to establish this type of relationship and prefer to use social media as a news feed, due to the nature of their organization.
However, when it comes to a having a true two-way symmetrical dialog, an organization must have listening devices in place in order to adapt to its audience or quickly identify leaders in a sensitive situation. In short, it must be on the lookout for warning signs (Heiderich, 2010; Roux- Dufort, 2003). To this effect, even if the monitoring tools are in place, we find that usually, little effort is made to examine the needs of the community, especially during a sensitive situation. Often, community managers operate on instinct, which is made worse by the fact that most participants in the study had no specific targets for their use of social media, as proposed by Boussicaud and Dupin (2012).
Nevertheless, some participants have made efforts in this direction, and attempted to identify the thought leaders in a sensitive situation and work with them. Usually, these are cases in which the situation was not only fixed, but that the users praised the community manager for his work. In light of this observation, we can assume that the community managers who best managed sensitive situations are those who have listening mechanisms already in place and seek to develop relationships of equal footing. This balanced relationship between the two parties is essential for symmetric communication, and it is assumed that the community manager can combat the balance of power of the Internet, by adapting to the user and staying alert for warning signs.
In another vein, it is interesting to note that during this research, several community managers chose to do nothing and ignored the comments, hoping that the situation would resolve itself. However, doing nothing still sends a message to users, raising questions about the long-term usefulness of this practice. According to the feedback management processes developed by Charest et al. (2011) at the OMSRP, negative comments should be deleted if they are aggressive or vulgar, or should be used as a starting point to start a conversation with the user, either publicly or privately.
Limitations and validity
The study is based on a wide variety of cases in the type of organization, the extent of sensitive communication situations, and the media on which they took place. This choice for diversity in these parameters, as well as in the selection criteria of participants, is voluntary. This helped create a diverse body of research and analysis of practices in a multitude of contexts and situations. However, this diversity does make it difficult to draw comparisons between the case studies. It was possible to make observations based on the type of sensitive communication and the type of organization, but they are difficult to generalize. Nevertheless, the objective of the research was not to generalize practices, but instead to explore.
In spite of this method, a dichotomy presented itself depending on whether the severity of the communication situations was minor or major. In minor cases, the situation came down to one or a few negative comments on a social media platform and presented little risk to the organization. In many of these situations, the community managers did nothing. In contrast, situations which presented major risks for the organization were because of a high volume of negative comments, the importance of the users in question or the issues for the e-reputation of the organization.
To better generalize a trend, it could be interesting to limit the study to one type of sensitive situation. However, it should be understood that major situations are rare within a smaller population like Quebec. Thus, although the study was initially limited only to major situations, it was necessary to expand the scope of the study, and also to de facto exclude several types of organizations where sensitive situations are less frequent, such as small organizations or public governments, where social media is used more for posting content than managing a community.
In the same vein, we also note that the study has yielded little data on the use of Twitter in sensitive situations, mainly because most studies were conducted either exclusively or primarily on Facebook. Just as with the limited data of major situations, we must understand that sensitive situations developing exclusively on Twitter are equally limited, and restricting the study to only these situations would have an impact on the diversity of the case studies. Moreover, Twitter does not have a high adoption rate in Quebec (CEFRIO, 2012: Online). Remember though, that Twitter is becoming an indispensable tool for sensitive situations, given its ability to respond rapidly and in real-time (White, 2011; Bloch 2012).
As for the results, we could be surprised that three quarters of the community managers interviewed stated that their organization had sufficiently integrated social media into its culture. However, this bias is naturally explained by their daily work in social media. In many cases, the community managers were practically the only people within organization to use social media, and had lots of freedom from senior management. Can we really say, however, that these organizations had indeed integrated social media culture?
Finally, when analyzing the importance of indicators of Ledingham and Bruning (1998), the participant’s answers, though complex, were coded on a Likert scale. Even though it was easier to observe trends, there was also a loss of information from using this scale. To overcome this limitation, the repeating patterns in the results were included with the presented results.
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