CEOs finally start to cotton on to social media changes

Social media is at last becoming a board-level issue.

Unless you have been living on a different planet for the last five years, you will have noticed that your business or practice has changed. Or rather, you will have noticed that the conversations around you and your organisation have changed, and either you have adapted and adopted new ways or you might soon be losing business to rivals who have. The change in question is the arrival of social media. What five years ago seemed like an interesting fad for a few geeks and the better-connected type of nerd has blossomed into a major part of most business life.

While professional services may be some way behind the most up-to-minute, youth-oriented, consumer-facing brands, more forward-thinking firms within the sector have nevertheless reacted to this increasing demand for a meaningful social conversation and have put in place some sort of social media strategy.

The full impact of some of these changes is well highlighted in a new report by Useful Social Media (USM). In its third annual State of Corporate Social Media briefing, it reveals the extent to which social media is maturing. Having been introduced to organisations largely as an addition to the marketing function (which itself partly explains why B2C firms are much more comfortable with the subject than B2B firms), social media has, according to the USM report, started to spread across organisations. Issues as diverse as gaining better customer insight, protecting (and improving) corporate reputation and even developing stronger employee engagement are all being tackled through social media. With the exception of the employee engagement element, B2C companies are more likely to use social media for all of these things than their B2B counterparts.

So what are the lessons for professional services firms from the latest trends in social media? It’s unlikely that many accountancy firms, however large, will benefit from the kind of resource put into social media by a consumer-facing company such as American Airlines, which reportedly responds to over 8,000 tweets a month. And each within 15 minutes. But there are clear advantages from central marketing departments learning to let go and encouraging social media for business purposes to spread through the organisation. One lesson is that the most prolific and effective social media users allow at least four named individuals to run the social media and often have more than six working on it. While for the world of B2B that mostly means LinkedIn, along with Twitter and some Facebook, for B2C that means Facebook as well as a host of newer growing social media outlets such as Pinterest and Instagram.

But statements about the effectiveness of social media highlight the area of greatest concern. How do you measure return on investment in social media? What does an effective social media campaign look like? Is it simply about driving traffic to a website or (worse still) about simply counting the number of followers you have? As the USM report makes clear, this is one area where there is still much to be learned right across the market. If consumer brands sometimes struggle to understand exactly why they are engaging so heavily in social media (are they keeping in touch with consumers or keeping up with competitors?), then how much rarer must it be to find an accountancy firm that understands what it is all for?

Of course, some accountants and firms have managed to build up impressive reputations and followings on Twitter, while LinkedIn is bursting with groups of finance directors and practitioners sharing grievances and sometimes solving problems together. In a profession that’s all about people, it follows that building a strong reputation as a key expert and knowledge point within a community can help you to build influence and might ultimately lead to more business. The issue is that so far there is very little real evidence to back up this common sense.

According to the USM report, it is apparent that “the advent of corporate social media adoption has had a deep and lasting impact on organisational structures”. It is clear that social media for some will become a catalyst for change within large organisations. What was once a grand experiment is now a routine part of how firms interact and learn about customers. As the USM report explains, “It has forced organisations to re-think how, when, where and why they communicate with their customers.”

For larger global firms, social media is also boosting global collaboration. Previously, where organisations were often highly compartmentalised or stuck in silos, the development of new models for working with social media has led to new ways of thinking more generally and is forcing teams to realise social media cannot be “owned” by the marketing team or any other single business unit.

Perhaps most importantly, social media is at last becoming a board-level issue and a concern for CEOs and senior partners. It may feel like something for younger practitioners or smaller firms, but even if you’re not sure why it matters just yet, and regardless of what type of business or practice you work in, social media will only get more important in the years ahead.

This article first appeared on economia

Twitter. Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”