Social media has emerged as a powerful advocacy tool; throughout the world, people are using social platforms to create mass uprising, for voicing dissent against the ruling government and triggering agitation, as well as during conventional voting.
Democracy isn’t only about voting; it is about shaping public policy and watching the course it takes once the government is voted in. In this new social media democracy, where two-way dialogue and engagement have assumed critical importance, have Facebook and Twitter become opinion polls or are they still limited to being unstructured conversations among the privileged?
These are some questions raised by Dilip Cherian, Consulting Partner, Perfect Relations. According to Cherian, the theory about the way social media is impacting governments can also be applied to the corporate world. “Digital monitoring means raising the level of stress for corporations. At the same time, with social media, companies need to understand that they are listening to only a few of its customers; several who do not have the facility or avenue to speak are often left out of these online conversations,” he said.
According to Madhavan Narayanan, Columnist/Associate Editor at Hindustan Times, the country is seeing a transition from being a literal democracy to participative democracy. In today’s participative democracy, in his opinion, Twitter is the new parliament and Facebook is the new café. For him, online and offline are connected mediums and the theory that the two are not linked is more academic and structural.
In such a vibrant ambience, to be able to remain in sync with the changing landscape, public relations professionals need to readjust to this new age of participative democracy.
To Narayanan’s question of the changes in the way PR professionals are dealing with public policy, Cherian said, “When we are working on the public policy aspect of a large investment in the area of consumer product distribution in a large scale, one needs to understand the context in which FDI policy was being framed because you know that the debate of FDI policy in retail is going to affect your client and whatever sub-policy he is looking for. One will need to watch what the signals are in terms of public pressure on the formulation of public policy.”
He stressed on the need to look at the bigger picture. “As the agency working with the corporate or as government working with policy- the bigger policy piece is going to affect everything you are going to ask for in the smaller policy piece,” he added.
Social media, according to Cherian, has led to a real time use of democracy - both in the corporate sector and the government. He drew interesting parallels between the way multiple social media platforms are being used to achieve both social democracy and corporate democracy. For instance, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have played a pivotal role in raising collective consciousness in the Egyptian revolution and marching towards democracy. In India, the Delhi Traffic Police is using Facebook and other social platforms to engage with people. These platforms, as Cherian explained, can also be used as for corporate democracy; a corporate professional uploading a video of his review of a hotel he stayed being an apt example.
Brands have also been using social media effectively to push democratic rights. Tata Tea’s ‘Jaago Re’ campaign urging people to vote in elections and Vodafone’s campaign promoting women’s empowerment are a few examples.
According to Narayanan, it is issues and conversations that drive a brand. In his view, a brand will be reflected by public opinion than reflect on public opinion. “Clients need to understand that it no longer dealing with just the message for a brand but issues. The inner motive is that you need to start dealing with issues,” he said.
Cherian added that brands are created in closed rooms on the basis of thorough research about consumer behaviour but once the product enters the marketplace it is the consumer that decides the brand’s future. “Conversation decides which elements of that arcane formula that you have chosen gets picked up and what gets traction. And the companies that are successfully able to convert part of that traction into a brand attribute are the ones who do well.”
Dilip Cherian and Madhavan Narayanan were sharing their views during a discussion on ‘Public Policy - Threat or Advantage’ at exchange4media’s India PR & Corporate Communications Conference 2013. Held in Delhi on May 31, 2013.