If you don’t participate in the conversation about your organization, you have no means of telling your own story. And increasingly, the conversation is not happening through traditional media outlets.
There is no better evidence for this than the experience of Glynn Young and his team at Monsanto. CW interviewed Young in early April, when the company’s blog was a seven-week-old baby.
As the Director of Issues & Employee/Electronic Communications at Monsanto, Young understands how crucial it is for companies to join the blogosphere if they want to have any influence on the stories being told about them. “Engaging the online world is much more problematic for us because it’s dominated by people who hate us, who hate GM [genetically modified] food,” Young says. “The one percent who don’t hate us think they should.”
Still, Young and his social media team are committed to engaging with the company’s critics, to providing an alternative voice. “It’s easy to demonize a corporation. It’s not as easy to demonize a person,” he points out.
A major component in that effort is the blog Monsanto According to Monsanto, which is written by regular staff members. It’s open to any employee who wants to blog, but six members of Young’s team are the primary contributors. All of them do so as part of their job responsibilities; no one is a full-time blogger.
The team itself is responsible not just for the topics but for the guidelines its members follow in writing the posts and responding to comments. Posts written by other employees have to adhere to the guidelines, too: “We need to be sure they do it in a reasonable, respectful way,” Young says. “We’re learning as we go, and we’ve tried some things and already learned a lot.”
Persuading the skeptics
Many of Young’s baby-boomer colleagues didn’t think a blog was necessary, or felt it should be done by a content expert. The idea of a blog seems threatening to those who still think they can control the message about their organizations.
The open secret is that they can’t. And although a blog is not going to hand back their control—that train has left the station—it will help keep “outsiders” from being the most listened-to voices in the conversation.
Young told CW about one of the internal meetings that began to change people’s minds: A colleague invited Young to speak about the social media initiatives in his division. Young asked everyone in the group to raise their hands if they read a blog. Out of the 30 or so people, only four hands went up. The colleague took that as proof that blogs were irrelevant.
Young asked the four to raise their hands again. “Look at whose hands are up,” he said. ‘They’re the youngest people in this room. This is your future.”
A place at the table
A comment from a blog reader named Chuck on the March 11 post (“Blogs—hardly shoddy journalism”) makes Young’s case for him: “Marketers are having trouble with the openness of online communications since they no longer have any control over what’s being said, by whom and who’s listening. So why not join the conversation. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll reach everyone you want any more than traditional media ever did but it does provide you with a channel that will reach and influence people who are talking about you.”
And that is the crux: to reach people who are talking about you, you can’t put out a press release, hope the media will pick it up and not mangle it, and then hope it will somehow persuade your critics to consider your viewpoint.
That’s especially true when you are Monsanto.
And engaging with the critics seems to be working. Although some of those opposed to GM food don’t think Monsanto should have a voice—one activist said, “You should stay out of our space”—Young says that they began to see some change just a month after the blog was launched. “Not seismic change, but we’ve seen some people saying we still don’t like you but we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and at least be in the conversation.”
Which is now where Monsanto is. Not, perhaps, leading the conversation yet. But at least it’s in the room.