Having been in Singapore for a week already, I’ve been fortunate not just to catch up with old friends, but to meet various folks in the local social media scene. For the next few days leading up to my teaching stint on Jan 15th, I’ll be sharing conversations with some of the people I’ve met in this Face to Face series…
“Public Relations + Social Media = Astroturfing?” That would be my typical assessment of it, and I bet so would many of you. I take a gamble by exploring this often misunderstood convergence with someone who works in it.
After the computing trade publication he worked for folded (see TechPlanet Asia), journalist Benjamin Koe took a look at how the local news media scene worked and came up with the idea to build a portal for press releases in Asia, geared at both journalists and PR practitioners.
Armed with Information Science degree, it didn’t take Ben long before he had to release his web project to the world, which he called ScoopAsia. Luck took a turn when he eventually found his calling in a public relations firm, where they gave him the title of New Media Specialist. His ScoopAsia project literally got him the job, and opened the doors to a social media world where people like me live in. That’s how he found me…
Ben emailed me after chancing upon my del.icio.us bookmarks and realizing how I was tracking rather similar things as he did. He introduced himself as the Social Media point man for Hill & Knowlton (Singapore) while I was still in Buffalo and we chatted about the work we were involved in. I met him for dinner this week where we talked about the awareness of social media by local businesses. Unlike the American business counterparts who were willing to experiment, there was a tendency for branches here to work with traditional forms of communication with their consumers, rather than to invest time in social media initiatives where KPIs (Key Performance Indexes) were non-existent.
What I particularly enjoyed out of our conversation was the part about how Ben said that he wasn’t going to write software for a PR firm. He believed that companies should do what they do best and if need be, either purchase commercial apps or tweak existing open source ones, rather to invest too much time on writing them from scratch (as my friend Ian once joked, “Whole life wasted!”). Not only can companies get going faster, but support can be found either commercially or by communities of open-source software developers.
While Ben gave a technical explanation for this approach, I supported the idea from a social standpoint. Much like open-source software, there already exist social media on the web for all to use as tools or platforms. It was a matter of taking risk by being willing to lose the controls to the users. I find that forward-thinking companies take calculated risks by using spaces such as Wikipedia, Youtube, and Facebook to launch their campaigns. That’s where users are, so instead of begging them to go to you (or your website), it makes more sense to bring it to them by setting up presence there.
Apple has done so by letting users “befriend” their favorite colored iPod Nano on MySpace and letting them join the Apple iTunes group on Facebook, then giving free iTune songs. In a more exciting fashion, Chevrolet asked Youtube users to remix video clips of their Chevy Tahoe commercial, aka consumer generated advertising. It was amazing. From pretty commercials, to subversive ones about destroying the Earth with 13 miles to the gallon. Ford expected this, but the results seemed worth it since it generated more attention than they could hope for.
It can be tricky though. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Singapore Garden Festival. Quite comprehensive, factual in Wikipedia standards and local bloggers took it at face value (see comments). But what if you knew that a PR agency was behind it? Would it have been a different story if it was written by the agency themselves? Interestingly, Benjamin proposed to the team in charge of the festival that they should use the Wikipedia. That was his job: To give counsel on what to do with social media. I think it works and it preserves the claim that good public relations is about improving communication, not the stereotypical spinning of stories.
Benjamin loves del.icio.us and Digg since they simply consist of links and are short enough for his busy lifestyle. I urged him to look beyond the “fast food” appetite of links that younger netizens are so fond of, but to consider the occasional beefier content which is what makes stories stick. I do find this hard to explain and perhaps I’m not fully convinced myself, but what is the value of one reading an entire book when you can get the cliffnotes? Perhaps it’s the experience we’d be missing.