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Interview: Courtney Barnes, Co-Author, Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications

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“They can’t not participate,” says Courtney Barnes when it comes to companies and social media. Barnes, former editor of PR News and now Vice President and Director of MH Group Communications is the co-author of Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications (McGraw-Hill, August 2009), alongside Paul Argenti, Professor of Management and Corporate Communication at Tuck at Dartmouth.

PRNewser caught up with Barnes this week to talk about why many large brands have changed their tune when it comes to social media, if PR will be able to grab a larger piece of the pie when it comes to digital and what stories stick out in terms of the executives she’s spoke with over the last year.

A lot of books have been written about digital communications, social media and PR. What makes this one different?

This one is really targeting senior management in terms of how not only they can, but how they need to leverage social media to advance their brand’s reputation and bottom line.


It’s not speaking to a specific niche audience of PR or marketing professionals. It really addresses the need not just to adopt social media but to integrate it into the overall communications and business approach so you’re not working within a siloed function or add on.

We hear the book’s title was chosen based on search keywords. Tell us about that process.

The title is fairly dry and originally Paul and I were pushing for something a little bit sexier, as a lot of books on topic of digital have had. The execs at McGraw Hill really wanted the title to be optimized for search so that was what led to the determination. As a writer of course, I sort of gravitate to things that are clever or ironic, but it’s so true that within any SEO strategy you really have to shy away from that type of title and so of course why wouldn’t it be the same for this.

In the book, you write, “Executives fail to accept the power of digital communications at their own risk, and those who do accept it prosper. Fortune favors the bold.” In speaking with executives, was there any common “light bulb” moments that got that to see things differently?

Yes, the light bulb moment was when they found themselves in the midst of reputation crisis. We used Dell as an example of that. Back in 2005-2006 they were really avoiding online engagement and the whole “Dell Hell,” Jeff Jarvis experience made them completely change their strategy and now they’re one of the leaders in using social media to engage all stakeholders. The people who were not willing to embrace it right away, realize the need to do so when crisis struck.

You highlight HP, Southwest Airlines, Sony, Dell, IBM, Starbucks, HBO, FedEx, and GE in the book. How did these companies balancing sharing information with wanting to keep their strategies and results private?

I think that in the age of social media more and more people are realizing that the only way to establish yourself as a thought leader is to be completely open as to what’s working with your strategy. In terms of competition ‘stealing it,’ I don’t think it’s relevant today because there is so much open collaboration, and most successful companies are ones that promote openness and transparency.

The other thing is that not being completely open is not going to work any more. Up until recently companies could still opt-in to participate to some extent. If the didn’t participate it was to their determent. They could decline but they could get away with it. Now with something like Google SideWiki, for example, they can’t not participate.

What is one story that sticks out to you the most, out of all the interviews you conducted?

I talked to so many really bright and forward thinking execs and I think that speaking with John Iwata at IBM and Paul had the opportunity to speak with Sam Palmisano, CEO of IBM. They are just really at the forefront of all of this, and they are a B2B company, which makes it even more compelling.

With digital up for grabs among so many different kinds of agencies, will PR be able to increase its share of the pie?

Yes, actually that’s something we talked about in the book, as recently as a few yeas ago, the whole conversation among PR was struggling to get a seat at the table and be seen as a strategic function both internally and by clients.

Social media’s intrinsic nature of being relationship driven and all about interactivity and conversation lends itself to PR and communications professional’s strength’s and skill sets much more so than marketers, so I think it really causes the PR and communications profession to be elevated within organizations because reputation is really the key driver of success today and their ability to protect the reputation of an organization through engagement, through communications, is much more developed and mature than any other single function.

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