Audi_100Audi’s “unintentional acceleration” fiasco of the 1980s might have looked very different if Twitter and Facebook were around.

Could the PR nightmare been avoided 140-characters at a time?

AudiGermany @Audi5000driversuingus @60minutes fyi the gas pedal is on the right, brake on left. u shld read manual 2. thx! ;-) #damagecontrol #cuckoo

Engaging directly with consumers has never been easier.

Audi5000driversuingus @AudiGermany OMG! And all a long I thought it was a design deffect. 2 bad can’t burn you for millions now. My bad. Enjoy the w/e!

60minutes @AudiGermany Damn your facts. The ratings were the best since the exploding Pinto.

Maybe it won’t play out exactly that way, but companies are taking social media seriously.

Recently, at a wine conference, I was amazed at the number of “social media” roles being created, specifically to champion new strategies. It’s also happening in retail (Best Buy), technology and several other industries.

It makes sense.

Existing management will likely need to inject new thinking and new approaches to brand management and damage control. A standard press release (although possibly useful) won’t cut it alone. Now companies need to go with their customers are hanging out. And it’s no longer just the mall. It’s in groups and on fan pages on Facebook. It’s on Twitter reacting to new products and services, or linking to experiences and reviews—good and bad. Yes, they are talking about you! In real time. Reaching thousands and thousands.

Companies that proactively take the bull by the horn (or the Tweeter by the beak?) and actively monitor their brands and customer conversations will be better positioned to understand consumer sentiment, or even avoid Audi-like PR crises.

An article in the WSJ (For Companies, a Tweet in Time Can Avert PR Mess) on just this topic piqued my interest yesterday. It specifically highlights how Ford, Pepsi and Southwest are transforming their practices, especially public relations, by using social media.

“Social media have magnified the urgency of crisis communication,” says Shel Holtz, a communications consultant in Concord, Calif., and co-author of “Blogging for Business.” He says seemingly small incidents can quickly spread into bigger PR problems via the Web.

No doubt social media is enjoying its day in the sun.

I believe it is here to stay. It will morph, becoming more efficient, separating banality from spam from legitimate value. But part of the hype does remind me of e-commerce of the late 1990s. Remember? Transactions online! Everyone build a web site and add a shopping cart! Frenzy ensued. A bubble formed. It turned out, that while e-commerce was smart and here to stay, no one really wanted to buy 20lb bags of pet food online.

The same holds true with social media. Not everything will be solved 140-characters (or 12 seconds of video) at a time. Aligning business objectives with the right channels, including Twitter, Facebook, among traditional approaches, together with an overall communications strategy will be the path I’d imagine a lot of the forward thinking companies will take.

Clinton Stark
Clinton shoots videos for Stark Insider. San Francisco Bay Area arts, Ingmar Bergman and French New Wave, and chasing the perfect home espresso shot 25 seconds at a time (and failing). Peloton: ClintTheMint. Camera: Video Gear