The Public Relations Strategist

Moving business forward in real time: How real-time engagement reset the market

December 10, 2010

We’ve read more than enough information about the financial crisis during the past two years. The seismic cultural shifts digital technology brought about are well documented. We’re up to speed on consumers’ burgeoning demands for instant information and entertainment. But what do these changes mean for PR practitioners?

Somehow, amid the scramble for survival, a new discipline called “real-time engagement” reset the market, allowing new players and opportunities to materialize. Only PR professionals who adapt to these changes will move their businesses forward.

Managing changing times
While many companies had to cut back during the recent recession, digital communication vehicles and channels grew. When marketers emerged from their bunkers, they found a drastically different media environment, with consumers quickly adapting their behaviors to a new norm. 

Communication and entertainment channels — and the way that consumers interact with them — have been permanently redefined. A web of nonstop engagement across multiple social networks is creating never-before-seen demands for instant information and gratification. To stay relevant, we must connect with audiences in real time, a mandate that presents significant yet exciting challenges. Among them: 

  • Crafting and managing unified narratives for multiple audiences and channels has never been more challenging or more rewarding.
  • Delivering real-time engagement services calls for new thinking, new skills and new organizational structures.
  • Navigating communication channels that are always on and that can change or disappear overnight requires unprecedented agility, creativity and speed. This is especially true if the content is user-generated.

Leading the engagement
PR practitioners are ideally positioned to pick up the real-time engagement mantle and lead clients through this new landscape. Why? Because we have the credibility to be the point people in the marketing mix, and we know how to integrate and manage traditional and digital channels. Engaging people in conversation is our strength. The key now is to start doing what we do well in real time, all the time.

Real-time engagement involves using experience, insight and analytics to engage consumers in conversation “right now” to manage reputation, harness creativity and create strong relationships between people and brands. To master this skill, we must understand the components of real-time engagement and use them to build a strategy that meets organizational objectives. The four components are:

Real-time conversations: Influencer marketing and word-of-mouth initiate credible conversations between consumers and companies. The point, no matter how we propel the message (tweeting, blogging), is to inspire people to start talking.

Real-time communities: Influencers, fans and organizers are passionate about brands, products and causes. There are plenty of communities out there, but those with proactively managed standards, applications and compelling content are the most effective.

Real-time content: Content generation is no longer controlled exclusively by professionals at broadcast networks or publications. Today, consumers and companies produce compelling content that heightens awareness; then they distribute and promote it on YouTube, blogs and Facebook. The challenge for brands is managing their stories and corporate narratives in this fragmented environment.

Real-time conversion: The purpose of real-time communications is to drive actual transactions. Analytics, search and other tools can convert conversations, communities and content into business results.

A real-time case: UL
After more than 115 years as the leader in product safety, Underwriters Laboratories (UL) saw an opportunity to raise brand awareness among a new generation of consumers. Manning, Selvage & Lee (MS&L) helped devise a real-time safety “movement” targeting new moms — an audience especially interested in home safety.

The holistic approach, which included a safety website, blogs, social media networks, print and broadcast media, live events and entertainment programming, allowed UL to leverage its proud tradition and create multiple touch points to give moms a sense of community and an ongoing connection to a brand they trust. 

“There’s so much information available and no way for consumers to know if it’s credible,” says Sara Greenstein, senior vice president, chief marketing and strategy officer, at UL. “As moms hear UL talking about safety in multiple places, they get to know us, trust us and interact with us in ways that are meaningful to their everyday lives.”

Now in its third year, UL’s campaign has increased company awareness by 15 percent, and the company is building on the opportunity to grow a new generation of safety-conscious consumers. 
“Our program is effective because it was completely integrated from the beginning,” says Greenstein. “And we’re flexible: We see which messages and channels moms grab on to, go where those conversations take us and make decisions in real time.”

A real-time case: General Motors
GM Education is a portal on the company website that houses the “Teach Green” educator blog. GM recently added an application developed by MS&L using Google Earth to show students how energy is produced and used around the globe. The launch campaign targeted bloggers, Twitter users and a community of people who share digital applications in real time. It was also publicized on the Chevy Volt Facebook page and AutoblogGreen, a site covering vehicle and technology news.

Sharon Basel, GM’s manager of environment and energy communications, says that the response has been positive. “We’re not trying to sell cars with this program — we want engagement and conversations,” she says. “Social networks give us a constant loop to capture more and more people. Our outreach team keeps conversations moving, which attracts whole new audiences.”

Moving business forward
People compare the evolution of social media and real-time engagement to the Internet: First it was a renegade medium, then it was a marketing tool and finally it was  a customer-relationship management must-have. Likewise, real-time engagement vehicles will continue to evolve in light of privacy concerns, monetization by major players and editing by consumers looking for utility or entertainment value. 

Renee Wilson
Renee Wilson is president of the Northeast region and managing director of the New York office of MS&L, a leading global communications firm offering real-time communications, public relations, social media, and corporate and events communication.


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