Where Does PR End and Customer Service Begin?

Marshall Kirkpatrick just wrote a great post on ReadWriteWeb about Twitter and CRM, using Comcast as an example. I could have written about 30 different posts of my own in response. But I keep coming back to this one question: Where does PR end and customer service begin?

One of the most interesting aspects of Twitter is that it provides a neutral playing ground for every type of communications agenda. I often find myself arguing that the next wave of successful social networking sites will specialize in terms of target audience, vertical, or a similar differentiating factor. (LinkedIn would be a prime example of this theory. Infer what you will about my thoughts on Facebook.) While you can’t necessarily argue that Twitter is a pure social network, its success is not accounted for in the paradigm I just described. In fact, Twitter works because of its lack of specialization. It’s open and neutral, and people are using it for many different, equally relevant, purposes.

That means that within lots of large corporations right now, there is an internal battle royale happening between the marketing, PR and customer service teams over who “owns” Twitter. In some cases, that means owning the domain-level Twitter handle, like @pepsi (though you will find that many big brands, including @comcast, @verizon and @coke, failed to snatch up theirs).  But it’s not so much about the exact username as it is about who is speaking for The Brand, regardless of the handle. In my stereotypical scenario, marketing wants to tweet out discount codes or Shaq-style “first person who touches me gets tickets to the game”; PR wants to communicate with influencers (like journalists); and customer service wants to use Twitter as a 24/7 outlet for feedback, questions and help.

The problem? These audiences overlap. Maybe a journalist wants those free tickets, or a customer is looking for an answer they can post to their blog. When does the PR person throw it over the fence to customer service, and vice versa? This isn’t something I face on a day-to-day basis, but I do get the occasional email from my clients’ customers, if only because my email address is so visible on the company websites. But email these days is a thoroughly understood medium. PR, marketing and customer service people have all used it long enough to feel comfortable in its protocol and only occasionally cringe when the person at the call center doesn’t realize they’re talking to David Pogue. [Ed note: I made that up.]

One of the reasons the communications ownership question pops up with Twitter is because it’s so easy to see everyone’s hands in the pot. Twitter is open, public. But, as R/WW noted, services like Radian6 are being marketed and sold to PR folks, when their feature set is probably close to similar offerings on the CRM/customer service market. I wonder how many companies are using Radian6-like tools without their customer service staff having access to it, or even knowing about it.

There are a few solutions emerging to the Twitter land-grab. First, I think of Jenny Dervin’s presentation at a recent BDI conference. She and Morgan Johnston in the corporate communications department were upfront about their desire to own @jetBlue. They envisioned jetBlue’s Twitter presence as an “information booth.” If you identify the tool, and make the case for how to use it first, then you win. (The irony is not lost on me that jetBlue’s PR team is basically fulfilling a customer service role, though.)

Another solution, and one that I see gaining more traction, is the fractured approach. Many companies are creating naming conventions that users can recognize on Twitter as rolling up to the same corporation. While Comcast is ignoring their domain-level handle, they’ve got a handful of individuals like @comcastbill under the @comcastcares umbrella. In this example, each Comcast twitterer appears to be a part of the customer service team. But I don’t see why marketing, PR and customer service folks can’t do the same. The key is to clearly identify, either within the profile or the background, what this particular account is for while also directing people to the other related twitterers.

There are also individuals who — by choice or by accident — speak on behalf of brands, which poses its own set of problems: Which department? from corporate or agency? What if there are more than one? What if they disagree with one another?

I guess the question is, are PR, marketing and customer service at odds with one another? Will publicly negotiating Twitter turf make us open our eyes to the many other tools we can be using and sharing together (like Radian6)? Is this already happening, and I’m just not aware of it?

Or perhaps the corporate Twitterer will emerge as the next step in human evolution. Sometimes they’ll talk about the brand. Sometimes they’ll engage with journalists. Sometimes they’ll offer discount codes, coupons, and tips. And sometimes they’ll just say, “Good morning, tweeple!” In other words, the corporate Twitterer will transcend PR, marketing and customer service roles. Instead of being a corporate communicator, they’ll just be…human.

See also.

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