As a thought leader, the most common question that I have to address at this time of the year is, “What should we watch for in 2019?” I must admit that it does put me in a spot somewhat. Why? Because I am expected to be a prophet of sorts and predict the future, including on social media.
In a fast changing world were the news cycle is now 24/7, that is a tall order. However, one can try! If it were not the thoughts and contributions of thousands of PR gurus from around the world, I would be in a daze. It has become manageable with the advent of content curation and marketing, that is, sourcing and sharing great content, and also tweaking it for a specific audience.
Recently, I wrote a piece about why it is important for company executives to have a certain degree of emotional intelligence to guide decision making. It was related to the emotional impact the sudden hiking of prices of basic commodities had on ordinary consumers in Zimbabwe.
It might have made economic sense, though many felt it was rather knee-jerk. Yet it had the potential of having a devastating effect on customer loyalty and trust. We are still picking up some of the pieces of reputations shattered during that ‘moment of madness.’
For any organisation planning for the New Year, we cannot overemphasise the importance of media relations. The media has over the past year grown in influencing customer sentiment. The coming in of social media has made that area of public relations, even more challenging to manage. It’s become a different ball game out there.
Social media is now a tool in the hands of the end-user to call out shoddy service and sub-standard goods. Not only is it immediate and ‘in-your-face,’ it’s also contagiously viral. However, with all the threats that this new and growing phenomenon throws at us, earned media continues to hold the sway. This is particularly true after fake news and unverified stories began to contaminate the pond.
We agree that trust in media is at an all-time low because, among others, of polarisation and political influence. The credibility of traditional media has always relied on its being a platform for third-party endorsement of what could easily have been marketing speak on products and services companies produce.
But for any business in 2019, they should be prepared for the potential of direct attacks via social media. Why? Because my feeling is that public scrutiny of corporate behaviour will intensify. There are two things to watch out for here; the accessibility of more and precise information by consumers and the anticipated entry of new, tried and tested players into the local economy.
It’s already happening, and fast. A number of local companies are reconfiguring after the removal of Mugabe-era indigenisation restrictions. The government is also commercialising as well as selling off state enterprises and parastatals seen as excess baggage. A lot of foreign suitors are showing interest, spelling an end to the extended protectionist honeymoon local entities have been enjoying.
The dumping of Statutory Instrument 122 of 2017 that restricted the import of certain goods is another case in point. The appetite for imported goods is sure to be whetted in the New Year. This will open the likelihood for shoddy local offerings going the way of the dodo bird.
Corporate arrogance, a direct consequence of unbridled monopoly, will be put to rest. We have noted how, big local corporates have brushed aside the growing glare of social media on their wayward conduct. Well, that attention will not go away any time soon and the cries for conformity are growing louder.
This is the time to prepare for any eventuality. They say that the best defence is the best offence.
“Having clear policies about what your company’s brand and image should be is a proven way of ensuring that all public communication about your company remains on-brand and consistent,” advises Jeremy Sutter, formerly at Adobe.
As part of your corporate culture, having a formal social media policy in place for your employees is a must. This covers what they can and can’t post publicly about their work and information about your company, as well as the behaviour you expect from them on social media and in public.
Secondly, constantly listening to what your customers are saying about your company and actively responding to their complaints and enquiries is key. Monitoring sentiment is one thing, actively having a conversation through engaging feedback shows maturity and tact. There is nothing more dangerous to your image than a customer left hanging high and dry.
Goodwill and trust come out of these genuinely empathetic engagements. It might sound frivolous or even tedious, but believe me it’s worth investing financial and human resources in! The upside of soliciting and harvesting reviews from happy customers is turning your bloops and blunders into victories worth sharing.
Last but not least, make sure that your company is compliant. Most companies are going for quality standards certification of their products, services and processes. This is a way of earning confidence in an increasingly competitive market. Ensuring that your company is in full compliance with all government, municipal and environmental regulations, is a proven way to circumvent any potentially costly litigation and exposure.
When it comes to protecting your business image and, you can’t be too prepared. By proactively taking charge of your company’s reputation, you can ensure that you’re never caught by surprise. You also ensure you’re in control. Additionaly, you engender trust and goodwill from the people who matter for your survival. This includes your employees and the customer. Have a prosperous 2019.
Lenox Mhlanga is lead consultant with Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants, a public relations agency. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org