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From Social Listening to Risk Intelligence

by Niall Moran

‘Social listening’ – a term most marketing and communications professionals will be familiar with, something that seems fairly innocuous, even for those members of the board not fluent in the 2018 social media nomenclature. Put simply, it is defined as the process of monitoring digital conversations to understand what customers are saying about a brand and industry online.

‘Risk intelligence’, on the other hand,  has far more overtly business critical overtones. ‘Risk’, a term usually reserved for exposure to danger, harm, or loss, gives an entirely different impression and sounds like something that could feasibly have a real impact on a company’s stock price or reputation.

However, in recent times a shift has taken place. Platforms that previously would probably have been recognisable as social listening tools  are increasing talking more about risk, and positioning their products as early warning systems rather than consumer sentiment tools.

What has prompted the shift in vernacular? One hypothesis could be that these platforms have been fastest off the mark to react to the ‘techlash’ – the increased scepticism and scrutiny tech companies have recently come under from government, regulators and the public. With social media often proving the canary in the mine for impending crises, does this rebrand to risk intelligence indicate that the boardroom needs to take a more proactive approach to addressing reputational issues?


The rise of individual influence


One view could be that the actual threat vector has changed, hence the evolution of the name. The rise of social media has democratised individual influence and customers these days shout a little louder, each one of them capable of disseminating content that in the blink of an eye can ‘go viral’ on their own social media platforms. Yes, that’s plural, and with the average user in 2017 having 7.76 social media profiles the potential threat just got much bigger.

A single post, whether positive or negative, can be viewed and distributed thousands of times before ever being addressed by the company in question. A discontent individual who is active on social media can often have a larger network of followers than the company it is complaining about. This ability to bring people to your side and mobilise angry customers, may amongst other things, be the catalyst for boards to take notice.

But as social media has been around for what seems like an age, why hasn’t this reframing of social as a bellweather for risk taken place before now? Social media is very much still growing and only last year between Q2 and Q3, users grew by 121 million. That works out at a new social media user every 15 seconds.


Why communications professionals should exert more influence on the board


In our recent report, Feedback Loop: Communication in the age of the Techlash, we found that nearly a third (30%) of marketing and communications professionals polled said that recent technology-related PR crises, such as Facebook’s data breach, has meant that PR has more influence within their organisation. Whilst PR has always been considered an important business function – not least because of the correlation between reputation and stock price – this has often been in relation to high-level crises such as a product recall, or a technology malfunction resulting in the loss of life. However due to the sheer volume of conversations in the ‘Twittersphere’ the risk is 24/7 and can be caused by an isolated incident of bad service to someone with a significant following, something difficult to ignore for any boardroom, especially as the vast majority of users (as high as 72% on Twitter) expect a response within the hour. Therefore, now more than ever companies need to take an “always on” approach to horizon scanning, and be both foresighted and nimble enough to pre-empt and authentically address any issues before they can cause damage. Who needs to take the lead for this, and have the gravitas to push through the necessary messaging or business changes? Enter the communications professional once again.

When we were putting Feedback Loop together, we spoke with a number of marketing and communications leads at tech companies about how PR can further influence board-level decisions. Oakley Walters, Marketing Director at Elder (an outline platform that connects elders with homecare service providers) made the point that PR’s greatest challenge is that it’s “generally seen as a subset of the broader brand and business communications piece. As such the board will only give PR primacy when a reputation crisis is looming or occurring. It’s at this time, where the specific value-add of being able to influence the news-cycle takes on outsized importance versus other business functions”. Perhaps with the rise of new risk intelligence tools, we’ll see communications professionals increasing moving away from reactive crisis management and more towards proactive reputation guardianship.