Clever Conversations

I recently attended a great roundtable discussion put on by John Hopkins University Communications (@JHUComm). The three panelists Henri Makembe (@Henrim), Beth Becker (@spedwybabs) and Malaka Gharib (@MalakaGharib) talked about using social media for non-profits. For me, the main takeaway was ‘conversations’.

I believe that whether you’re engaging people over social media or using more traditional public relations, the principles are the same. Especially when your goal is to influence behavior or engage people in actions to support a cause. The rise of social media has made it easier to have this conversation, but remember the principles of effective community engagement and treat your online community, the facebook liker and the @twitterer with the same approach. Here are a few tips that relate:

  1. Know who you’re talking to – general audience identification on social media is vital but so is identifying those online influencers and community leaders. When you go into a community to promote or discuss an issue, you don’t stand in the street, microphone in hand and spruke your message. First you identify who you need to talk to, whether it’s 1 or 100 people, and you begin a conversation with them that will flow on to be heard by the community.
  2. Get your timing right – address influencers and community leaders at the right time. Just like you would check what’s going on in a community before running a local engagement exercise, the same should be done when engaging people over social media. Research what is on your target audiences’ agendas – are most people tied up at work, has a major story just broken, is everyone sitting down for thanksgiving dinner? Launch a conversation when you believe you are most likely to connect with your audience and avoid competing with major events. But you can also be creative and effectively use those big occasions, like the upcoming holiday season, to draw people into your conversation.
  1. Find the angle – rather than simply telling someone you want to connect with on twitter or facebook about you and your issue, ask their opinions and find out about their motivations first. Make them feel part of the story and have a role in telling it. When you hold a public or stakeholder meeting, it helps if someone prominent in the community introduces you and generally you would allow for more than just one speaker. So why not do the same when you address big audiences online?
  2. Let opinion flow – don’t shut down the twitter conversation or the facebook post, even when it gets hard. You wouldn’t demand someone sit down or leave a public conversation just because they voiced a different opinion or asked a tricky question. Be prepared and let the conversation flow.
  3. Follow up and reconnect – you want communities of people online to stay engaged, particularly if you need some kind of community agreement or to influence public opinion. Just like when you invest time and money into events and other offline community engagement activities, you want those people who have participated to stay involved. There’s no point in reaching out to a community once and then never going back. So it’s important to find interesting ways to keep those online influencers and audiences connected. Play to your audiences’ motivations, follow up on issues, ask and respond to questions, and most importantly use a mix of on and offline PR to generate participation from partners and individuals.

Social media is an opportunity to have a clever conversation, but relies on the core values of effective PR first.

photo credit: aforgrave via photopin cc

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