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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Rhetoric at heart is the process of advocacy and counter advocacy. It is the rationale for suasive discourse. Rhetoric assumes that ideas appropriately framed and presented can affect strategic and ethical changes. It assumes that the symmetry of relationships is best defined by the ability of ideas to sustain themselves under the scrutiny of public discourse. (in Botan/Hazelton 2006) The words and/or images delivered via social media exert influence and meaning through the act of discourse in the online space. Rhetorical Theory applies as long as participants are indeed engaged in conversation.

Much social media research is conducted by organizations with a vested interest in fostering the emerging primacy of social media at the expense of mainstream media. For example, the Altimeter Group and Wetpaint claimed that brands most engaged in more than 10 social media activities grew revenues on average 18 percent over the previous year, compared to the least

engaged brands, which saw revenues fall 6 percent on average. They stated:

Note that we are not claiming a causal relationship — but there is clearly a correlation and connection. For example, a company mindset that allows a company to be broadly engage with customers on the whole probably performs better because the company is more focused on companies than the competition. (Altimeter, 2009) The press release announcing the results of this study, however, argues that: ““The success stories we have uncovered provide a blueprint for companies making decisions about how to best apply their marketing and consumer relations resources.” Research Questions RQ1: Is the current content of organization-driven social media consistent with the idea of persuasion?

RQ2: Is the content consistent with the precepts of Excellence Theory?

H1: Organization-driven social media content is asymmetrical, and therefore focused on persuasion despite its two-way potential.

–  –  –

The authors wanted to choose organizations from outside the information technology sector, which has, unsurprisingly, been the one most embracing these social tools. TweetStats.com was used to capture Twitter statistics, blogsearch.google.com; Google in general; Technorati and Blogger were used to locate organizational blogs. The authors found that eight firms discontinued their corporate blogs following the subject period. Former blog addresses pointed to generic pages, with no mention or explanation. Two other firms were eliminated from the study as initial observations did not differ significantly from the 8 remaining firms.

Other forms of social media activity (such as Facebook) may be mentioned, even though such activity is outside the scope of this very exploratory research.

All of the data were gathered and analyzed during the period February 2010 to April 2010, pointing out the difficulty of studying a medium that literally is changing by the minute. Nearly all the research was conducted using the subject firms’ websites, blog sites, Twitter accounts and related material.

Terms Twitter, a micro-blogging/mass instant messaging service, permits users to compose 140character status updates, commonly referred to as Tweets. These Tweets are visible to anyone, technically, though mainly they’re intended to be seen by other Twitter users who “follow” people whom they want to stay in contact with. When another user forwards a Tweet to his/her own followers, that’s called Retweeting (RT). Tweets can be private communications, too, through Direct Messages (DM) that travel from originator to a single other Twitter user.

Followers can create a conversation through Replies. Number of followers, number of users one follows, number of Tweets, Retweets and Replies are common statistics.

A recent addition to Twitter are “lists,” user-controlled aggregation of followers by subject matter, location, etc.

Blogs, short for Web Logs, are Internet sites. They provide a channel for the author to share information of any length. The sites are available to anyone, and it’s common for people to search for blogs on certain topics, using Blogsearch.Google.Com, Technorati, and other services.

Most blogs have the ability to have readers comment, and it’s considered a best practice for an author to engage in conversation with his/her commenters. Web statistics are commonly used descriptively – visits, page views, time on page, downloads – as well as the number of comments and proportion of author replies to comments.

Social bookmarking and rating services – Digg, De.li.ci.ous, and others offer further evaluation perspectives, but are outside the scope of this paper.

Facebook has more than 400 million user accounts as of April 30, 2010, and many subject companies are using it as well. This, too, is outside our scope in this initial research, except as noted.

–  –  –

Wells Fargo Wells Fargo is one of the world’s largest financial services companies. It has four blogs and a Twitter account, and they use these tools differently from one another.

The Twitter account (@Ask_Wells_Fargo) is a mechanism for uncovering customer service issues and moving them off the Twitter stream. They tweet during specified business hours, beginning with admonition to avoid tweeting personal or financial information. The typical conversation introduces the customer service tweeter, and instructs the customer to direct message Wells’ Twitter account to facilitate personal contact by either email or telephone.

They seldom retweet, and replies make up 78 percent of their total tweet count, a very high proportion, though the replies are instructional as noted above, rather than adding new information or discussing matters with customers. During the study period, Ask_Wells_Fargo tweeted 1,044 times, 822 of which were @ replies and just 3 retweets.

The use of Twitter is asymmetrical and cannot rightly be called two-way despite the relatively high percentage of @ replies, which usually call upon the user to send a direct message (a private Twitter based communication) with offline contact information.

Wells’ blogs Wells-Wachovia Blog, which is dedicated to the merger of the two companies, especially branch conversion information, dates, etc. For the last quarter of 2009 plus January, 19 posts generated 385 comments; Wells representatives replied to commenters 49 times, for a proportion of 12.7%.

The post content is conversational in style, though the two-way replies to commenters are limited to apologies, answering occasional questions and providing additional information. Given the strong opinions and complaints voiced by many commenters, Wells could reply more frequently;

there are many comments complaining that no one has replied.

Guided by History is just what it sounds like – a series of posts recounting the company’s history, as well as posts that touch upon historical events. In the last quarter of 2009 plus January 2010, there were 22 posts that generated 87 comments (40 of which were on one post, a caption contest), nine of which were replies, for a proportion of 10%. All the replies save one were “thank you” comments of varying length, including thanks for correcting information.

The Student LoanDown covers financing college education. In the last quarter of 2009 plus January 2010, there were 14 posts with 37 comments, 15 of which were replies for a proportion of 40%. All of the replies answered questions posed by the commenters (typically offering additional information) or, rarely, correcting misinformation. The posts are quite long and technical, covering documents and other lending materials and information.

Stagecoach Island is an interactive game. Users participate in a virtual world, adopting personas – avatars – to represent them as they interact (similar to Second Life), transact business and take classes in Stagecoach Island University. The blog that supports the game had 26 posts with 127 comments, 34 of which were replies, a proportion of 26.7%. The replies both celebrated and encouraged commenters, gave instructions on how to solve technical issues and offered guided tours “in-world.”

–  –  –

The blog postings are articles of varying length about their products, technology and leaders.

There are many comments. During the fourth quarter 2009 plus January 2010, TheFordStory had 61 blog posts generating 1,192 comments, only 49 of which were replies to other comments, a 4.1% ratio. Ford seldom engages with its commenters, and when it does it’s to correct misinformation, add information and say “thanks.” On Twitter, however, Ford is much more interactive. During the same period, four Ford accounts tweeted 1,584 times, 927 of which were replies, for 58.5%. Retweets were minimal, at 162, mostly retweeting their company Twitter accounts.

The content of the tweets in the main is that of a conversation. Some material is promotional – pointing to blog posts, and other internal content, but the bulk of the tweets are not. They share media hits, chat, and generally participate in a flow of discussion. It does not appear, however, that the company is changing anything as a result of this dialogue.

Crate & Barrel; CB2 At the start of the research that led to this paper, Crate and Barrel had a corporate blog. It is now not available. C&B did Tweet from a corporate account 10 times during the period, but stopped January 11.

It appears that the company decided to concentrate on Facebook; the company page as of 31 March has more than 30,000 “fans” and a very active dialogue on its “wall.” {note for further research—if this is a trend, Facebook will require serious study.} CB2, the company’s urban brand, does blog, with 54 posts during the study period and 63 comments, none of which were replies. One post was responsible for 34 of the comments – it’s fair to say that there is no dialogue between company and commenters here. Even the prospect to create a forum for commenters is not supported by the evidence. As with its parent, CB2 has apparently shifted its engagement to Facebook, where it has 4,457 fans.

CB2 uses Twitter (CB2Tweets) strictly as a means of notifying followers of new blog posts. It tweeted 44 times in fourth quarter 2009 plus January 2010, with just one retweet (of a Crate and Barrel tweet) and no @ replies.

A third C&B brand, The Land of Nod, targets accessories and décor for babies and children. It has no blog, but Tweets frequently. During the study period, it tweeted 156 times; more than 24 percent were replies and just under 14 percent retweets. The content of the tweets themselves is wide-ranging, though dialogic elements are rare. Most tweets are product promotions, contests, “knock-knock” jokes (apparently a part of the company’s Web site) and thank-yous.

Pottery Barn, PB Kids Continuing a theme in the research, Pottery Barn (a Williams-Sonoma brand) seems to have begun its social media strategy with blogging and Twitter, only to abandon the blogging.

A search on Digg.com, a site where community members submit content to be “voted upon” by others, finds 70 “digs” regarding Pottery Barn – including 14 each in April and May 2009 and 12 in November 2009 – many of which emerged from what seem to be 11 Pottery Barn blog Web sites, but it appears unlikely that they are sponsored by the company.

Each of these sites contained one post dated Nov. 13 or Nov. 14, 2009. The site identifying information includes a copyright mark saying that it is owned by Pottery Barn Kids, but as the branding is completely different from other Williams-Sonoma owned brand sites, and as the content seems amateurish, it is more likely that an unaffiliated party is responsible.

918 Pottery Barn on Twitter had 30 tweets in the study period, with no retweets or @ replies. Pottery Barn Kids had 41 tweets, also with no retweets or @ replies.

During the study period, however, Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn Kids launched Facebook pages.

In December, the company reached out to 1,300 Facebook users in an existing “Pottery Barn Fanatics” group encouraging them to “fan” the company’s new page. As of March 31, 2010, Pottery Barn had more than 98,000 fans and Pottery Barn Kids more than 34,000.

Home Depot Home Depot has an employee-generated blog coined “OrangeBlooded.” As described on its website, the blog celebrates the Home Depot’s culture. The stories are straight from the aisles and selected by Home Depot associates throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico and China. A personal tone is reflected in the human interest stories posted to the blog. Blog titles such as “Associates Bring Cheer to our Communities,” “A Splash of Pink Pain for the Chicken Coop,” and “Wedding Bells at the Santa Fe Home Depot” reflect the local nature of the information posted by associates in this blog. However, despite its folksy and intimate feel, the content primary of this blog is promotional in nature. In essence, this blog serves as an outlet for public relations human interest stories. Very few comments from readers/viewers are posted.

Home Depot has an active Twitter presence. As reflected by TweetStats (April 23, 2010), Home Depot averaged 213 tweets per month in the time period from October 1, 2009 to January 31, 2010 for a total of 852, more than 71 percent of which were replies and over 5 percent retweets.

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