For me, waking up to the buzzing of phone notifications is never a good sign. I’m not that popular. By the tenth buzz, I generally assume that those awful noises are Facebook and Twitter notifications coming from my work accounts. If that’s the case, then it’s time to find a computer. I work in the public relations department for an electric utility, so anytime a large number of customers lose power, I quickly go from public relations professional to official social media customer service representative.
On a typical day, our Facebook and Twitter followers aren’t very demanding. The public relations team and I actively work to engage our audience and we do have some success. For the most part though, our communication strategy is two-way asymmetrical — meaning we try and persuade our audience, but we also acknowledge and incorporate audience feedback into messages (Public Relations Industry, 2018). Let’s face it, people aren’t generally all that excited by their local energy distribution company, which often makes it difficult to create a true two-way conversation with customers. Most days, we deliver company news, energy saving tips, safety information, and promote our community involvement. The moment we have a large outage though, our social media accounts quickly become the center of customer conversation. That’s when our communication strategy suddenly shifts to a true two-way symmetrical strategy.
Handling this sudden demand for two-way communication from customers can be difficult at times. To make matters worse, we aren’t staffed to handle the sudden increase in social media messages we receive during big storms. However, as Cho, Schweickart and Hasse (2014) explain, “two-way symmetry communication is the most useful for organizations to build and maintain relationships and is also the most conducive to encouraging publics to actively engage with an organization.” When my organization does experience outages, our public relations team tries our best to turn crisis into opportunity and build trust, share customer-sourced content, interact with our audience and respond to questions.
Lipschultz (2018) discusses the importance of creating messages that connect with your audience. We use the experience we’ve gained working other storms to immediately try and provide those details that the customers are looking for. If we leave out an important detail or group, our audience will let us know. Dialogue often evolves on our social media pages as events unfold. In these instances, two-way communication becomes incredibly important. During crisis scenarios, customers often get desperate. Many times they’ll call legislators, local news reporters, the police — anything to get their power back on. We keep customers up-to-date with information, photos and direct conversation. Adding a human element to the conversation never hurts either. Often, we post pictures of linemen and crews to help remind people that actual people are working to restore their power. Occasionally, the wives of some of our linemen even chime in and the dialogue really gets interesting.
Several news outlets, including the New York Post, have recently reported on a decrease in active users on social media platforms like Facebook over the past several years. Some might even argue that a number of these platforms aren’t as relevant for communicators today as they were a few years ago. In my experience however, social media is often the first place customers turn during an emergency situation. While we have seen decreased engagement in recent years on day-to-day use of Facebook, when we experience serious storms or significant outages, many of our customers still turn to this platform to communicate.
My organization has customers that follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google plus. We have several applications to track engagement across all platforms, and use that data to help develop our communication strategies and engage customers on each platform. The area my organization serves is incredibly diverse, and to reach different audiences, we leverage all the communication tools we have at our disposal. Most of our Social Media platforms continue to grow and they have become an important tool for messaging — especially for two-way communication opportunities.
Social Media isn’t going anywhere, it’s just evolving. Even on Facebook, where engagement is down as a whole, users still seem to find a certain level of comfort in the older platform during emergency situations. Furthermore, networks like Instagram and YouTube continue to find new audiences (Osmand, 2018; Meek, 2018). As these platforms and their users evolve, It’s increasingly important for communicators to track engagement closely and adapt to the changes they see in their audience. Cho, Schweickart and Hasse (2014) explain, that two-way communication should be used to create dialogue and quality relationships with audiences. Social media will continue to play an important role in building relationships through two-way communication for the foreseeable future.
References for this post:
Cho, M., Schweickart, T., & Haase, A. (2014). Public engagement with nonprofit organizations on Facebook. Public Relations Review, 40(3), 565-567.
Lipschultz, J. (2018). Social Media Communication Concepts, Practices, Data, Law and Ethics. New York, NY: Routledge.
Meek, M. (2018). Inside Facebook’s ‘severe’ traffic decline. New York Post. Retrieved from: https://nypost.com/2018/08/09/facebook-lost-4000000000-monthly-page-views-over-two-years/
Osman, M. (2018). 18 Instagram Stats Every Marketer Should Know for 2018. Retrieved from: https://sproutsocial.com/insights/instagram-stats/
Press Books (2018). Four models of public relations – Writing for Strategic Communication Industries. Ohiostate.pressbooks.pub. Retrieved from https://ohiostate.pressbooks.pub/stratcommwriting/chapter/four-models-of-public-relations/