Social media: the ownership battle between marketing, PR and customer relations

Should social-media strategy be handled by the marketing department, the PR and comms team or customer services? Adam Woods and Andrew McCormick weigh up the merits of three different approaches, while below, a variety of agencies make their case for handling brands' social media strategies.

As social media breaks out of its infancy, brands are still wrestling with how best to take advantage of it.

After all, there is far more to social media than Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Factor in hundreds of other networks, bloggers and the use of reviews to gather customer feed-back, and social can be a complicated beast.

The consensus is that brands should have a social-media presence, but there are differing opinions on how it should be organised internally.

Here, three marketers describe how they are set up to take advantage of social media.

Sony Ericsson

Ben Padley Sony Ericsson vice-president, head of digital marketing and CRM, is the company's former UK and Ireland marketing director as well as its one-time global head of music marketing. Now responsible for Sony Ericsson's CRM and digital marketing brief, he embodies the most common approach by brands to social media: a marketing man with a remit covering all social channels.

- How do you approach your social-media strategy?

We made a decision to focus our energy on Facebook and YouTube when we established our social-media strategy about two years ago, because we wanted to find core plat-forms where we excel and to recruit ambassadors for our brand. At the beginning of last year, we had about 300,000 fans on Facebook, and now we have about 4m.

People often say of social media that it is such a loose thing, that the rules are not defined. I subscribe to that in terms of working in an agile way, but you need to have a baseline and internal agreements about how everyone is going to do it.

- Sony Ericsson is a global brand. How do you organise your strategy around the world?

From this department, we have established global social-media guidelines that will be followed in every territory and each department. In the same way, we have agreements with, say, customer service, about the number of agents they will provide to support our social-media channels, and we have internal governance to manage the content we create.

When anyone in our organisation puts anything on Facebook, it is like a micro-press release - every time we make a statement, it goes to 4m people, which is a higher coverage than most broadsheets. So we have a weekly framework - often just a phone call - where we review that content across the teams to make sure it is approved, and we try, as far as we can, to iron out the editorial while still giving other departments the flexibility to create ad-hoc messages.

- Why do you adopt a marketing-centric approach?

We are a company that makes consumer goods, and as a result, we are traditionally focused in our mindset around launches, where all the assets are created at the beginning of a product's life cycle. So one thing we have had to do is educate colleagues about the need for assets through the whole cycle of a product.

Obviously, we don't have the budget for a constant stream of TV ads coming through, so we have to work hard on identifying content that can be used in an engaging way, which is where our social-media agency Punch has been very clever.

With social media, you start to operate around the consumer, rather than around product life cycles, and when you do that, you begin to break down internal silos and inevitably you are forced to work across the company.

Naked Wines

Naked Wines founder Rowan Gormley (pictured), a former chief executive of Virgin Direct and Virgin Wines, is adamant that his company would not exist at all if it were not for social media, in the broader sense. The two-year-old venture allows wine-drinkers to support 25 wine-makers for as little as £5 a month - redeemable against wine - for which they receive preferential prices, an open invitation to visit and free tastings. The wine is sold before it is made, minimising the risk and the cost of the sales process to the vineyard, and the entire operation is built around Naked Wines' own social website, which creates a community of wine-drinkers and wine-makers, putting supplier and consumer in direct contact.

- Why is social media so central to your business?

I think there are several categories where brands and social media are concerned. Some companies just ignore the subject altogether. Quite a few others think about it as they would a direct marketing channel - how many leads do you get for the amount of investment you put in?

Then there are people who use social media for customer service, and lastly there are the people who have social-business models, who wouldn't exist if it weren't for social media. It's not a very long list of companies that are in this last group, but we are one of them.

We are a start-up company that launched two years ago, in the middle of a recession. We needed to find a way to deliver better wine for less money than our competitors.

The only way we could do it was to strip out all the costs you can't taste and put more money into those that you can, and the reason we can do that is because we have a network of 20,000 people who buy our wine a year in advance, so our wine-makers can get on with making the wine and they don't have to worry about selling it.

- What are the benefits of a customer-service approach?

The single most exciting thing about social media is this rebound back toward an emphasis on talented producers and away from big companies. I don't have anything against big companies, but we are all paying too much for most things because big companies are taking a lot of margin out.

Our social media is really our site, supplemented by everything else that's available. It is not exactly social in the sense of Facebook or Twitter - though there is a lot of consequential traffic - but it is absolutely social.

Our customers can speak to the wine-makers, each of whom has a wall, and they can also speak to other customers, and we actively involve them in pricing decisions. There's a novices' wall too, where newcomers can ask questions and other custo-mers help them out.

We pretty much feel like our customers are our owners and our wine-makers are our suppliers, and our job is to do all the boring bits in-between.

- Why not use it as a marketing channel?

When a lot of companies talk about a social-media strategy, they are talking about a direct-marketing strategy that they have tried to load onto a digital channel. But we are an example of real social commerce in action - we invest £1m a month in wine-makers, and we are shipping about 10,000 bottles of wine a day.

Land Rover

The new Range Rover Evoque is notable for the length of time it has already been on display before the world, and there is still six months left until it becomes commercially available. The early unveiling of the lightweight, compact, luxury model last year owes itself directly to a global, social-media-driven launch managed equally between the car giant's PR and marketing teams. So far, the campaign - Land Rover's first major social-media push - has encompassed everything from a twitpic scavenger hunt for wire-frame sculptures of the Evoque to tweeting celebrity ambassadors and a GPS-assisted street parade, as Land Rover global PR director Fiona Pargeter explains.

- How are you building social media into your business?

We started the 'Pulse of the City' campaign for the Range Rover Evoque in May last year, which is very early for us. Traditionally, when we launch a product, we will unveil it at a motor show, do presentations to our dealer network and it will go on sale within six months. Because this wasn't replacing an existing product and we were reaching out to new customers, our agency The Brooklyn Brothers suggested we invest early.

- Why the PR-led approach?

To make a campaign work on a social-media platform, you have to have marketing and PR working equally together. That is absolutely key, because if it is all PR-driven, or alternatively all marketing-driven, then you are not going to achieve the best results. The content and the story are where the PR team has led. The marketing team manages the channels - Facebook, Twitter, Land Rover YouTube channel - and our job is the storytelling.

We wanted to link up with 40 'City Shapers' globally, with between two and five in each of our key markets. Many of those people are already Range Rover customers, but are all influential and have interesting stories to tell in their own right. Some of them are artists, some are TV presenters. In the UK, our 'City Shapers' include Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, who is a Land Rover customer, and what better people to talk about your brand than your customers?

- What effect can this PR approach have?

In Los Angeles, one of our 'City Shapers' is the band OK Go, who wanted to spell out their name on the LA grid with our Pulse of the City app, which uses GPS to track your movements around the city you're in. Ironically enough, our Russian website crashed because so many people were watching it online. It's amazing, the opportunity to connect people around the world who want to be entertained and feel a part of something.

Working in social media, the content has to be interesting, and for a big corporation it has been an interesting shift to being able to talk to your customer in a way that engages them, rather than boring them with corporate messaging.

The vehicle goes on sale in September and we will continue to communicate after that, because we will have lots of different news around colours and specifications. We are certainly not switching off.


Social media is a young channel, with a disproportionate amount of epic failures to date. Dr Pepper, Nestle and General Motors are just some of the global brands to be tripped up by the inherent perils. It is important, therefore, that having decided on the approach to take, the entire company is united in its approach.

If only someone had relayed this message to Chrysler, which earlier this month experienced a failure of its own, when an employee of one of its agencies tweeted from the @chryslerautos account: 'I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to fucking drive.'

The aftermath of such a short but insulting message has led to Chrysler re-evaluating its approach to social media. It has decided not to renew its relationship with agency New Media Strategies, and is dealing with a reported 'turf war' between its marketing and communications departments over who 'owns' social.

Chrysler's hard work building the brand around the tagline 'Imported from Detroit' and associating itself with 'The Motor City' was quickly undone, but it can still turn things around.

First, the marque needs to decide who should have control, so that, ultimately, someone has responsibility for Chrysler's social media output. Second, the brand could take a leaf out of Land Rover's book in developing an approval system for all things social.

Lastly, Chrysler should look at the example set by Ford, which has led the way in terms of social-media strategy. Sometimes copying a strategy is the best strategy in itself.

The agency dilemma

Once you've decide on your approach to social media, what agency support, if any, should you bring on board? Here, some of the UK's top agencies, make their case for being the lead agency on social media.

The ad agency

Jonny Spindler, innovation director, AMV BBDO

The ownership of social media and which type of agency should lead it has been a familiar question to most over the last year but the answer is simple - none of them, the client should.

If you look at brands across the world getting the most from social media, it is not because they hired a specialist agency to run twitter or started creating more 'virals' with their digital agency or even because the ad agency now allows everyone on Facebook to shoot their own commercials, it is because they've integrated social into their business processes from start to finish.

For example, Vitamin Water ‘Connect’ was a new flavor designed entirely by Facebook fans in the US; Starbucks have integrated their loyalty program into Facebook to focus on fans, not just customers and along with Dell, crowd sourced many new business ideas through social channels. Ford provided Mumsnetters the chance to test drive new cars to get open feedback from the community and recently added their whole catalogue to their Facebook page allowing customers to buy directly without leaving the site. 

These brands do not look at social from just a media perspective, but also as a means to shape their business, customer relationships and overall marketing strategy.

The idea of a brand and organisation becoming more social with its customers is no longer a new or specialist principle but rather a fundamental part of business and marketing planning.

This is true also for advertising agencies. Social understanding, execution and management need to become a core part of an agencies skill set, not a specialist add-on or department. At AMV we have infused social monitoring and community management into our account and planning teams to support our clients with the level of resource they require and integrate social planning, execution and on-going management into the overall marketing mix.

So if clients are the lead, then when looking for agencies to support it is the agency best placed to understand their business objectives and marketing strategy, be sufficiently resourced yet flexible to adapt to their own social structure and most importantly, have the best understanding of the brand voice when communicating with their customers.

The PR agency

Graham Goodkind, chairman and founder, Frank PR

Every discipline is fighting for a piece of this area and making a case to lead. When you step back from the buzzwords and bun fights though, it’s pretty simple. PR must be at the forefront of managing and shaping brand presences on social media for the simple reason that we are all about seeking third party endorsement and conversation.

We don’t talk ‘at’ consumers and never have done – that’s why we offer more for social media than disciplines used to buying their say, rather than persuading markets and media to listen. The fact the social web, which is the native habitat for most consumers under 25, is about conversation and persuasion rather than broadcasting means PR has a greater creative and strategic role.

Our ideas and insights are able to have bigger, more measurable impact than ever before and clients see this.  Being active on Social is no longer optional anyway.  Consumers get actively annoyed when brands do not have a presence, especially on Twitter when they have a problem. It’s like not having an address or phone number.  But seeing it just as a CRM challenge is a huge mistake – the fact it all happens in public means PR needs to lead.

The media agency

Dan Clays, chief strategy and development officer, Arena Media

The multiple business benefits that social media offers brands and the numerous stakeholders it involves can be a challenging prospect.??We are talking about a fundamental change in the way businesses need to talk to their customers and critically how social behaviour has to be thought about early and genuinely shape the products and service brands offer, not just how social is used for marketing.

To maximise the opportunity, brands need to commit dedicated in-house expertise working themselves - collaboratively with their agency – and we would argue the media agency is best placed to provide the scope of services required for four principal reasons.

Firstly, social has to be considered alongside all other media channels as part of an integrated solution, not an entirely separate silo, and rich understanding of the consumer across all media - not just social is critical.

Secondly, the emergence of SEO services over the past two or three years has skilled up the media agency to be able to both create and distribute content across the social landscape.

Thirdly, while social media reaches far beyond the world of Facebook, the relationship with media owners and understanding the value of paid media in the social space is critical.

And finally, brands want to understand the commercial value of investing in social and the ability to track conversation and measure effectiveness is central to our expertise.??This is not to say the creative agency and PR agency do not have a role – absolutely far from it – they are vital – but we believe it is the media agency that is best placed to provide the context and framework that clients are craving in this brave new world.

The social agency

Robin Grant, managing director, we are social

The external landscape is clear. Progressive companies like Unilever plan to spend more on earned social media than on online display and search combined, and within a year social media will take almost 10% of overall US marketing budgets.

However, marketing directors are faced with a confusing internal landscape when it comes to social media, both in terms of how they should organise their teams and budgets, and with all of their incumbent agencies telling them they can help in one way or another.

Unfortunately, those agencies' legacy business models mean they’re incapable of giving the right advice. Media agencies revert back to media buying, advertising agencies to "ideas that people talk about" (and most often don’t), PR agencies to farming out press releases and digital agencies to designing and building you an app you don’t need.

Social media is a new and complex field of marketing communications, which is completely changing the business landscape, and one that, in the short term at least, merits being treated as a distinct discipline with specialist expertise applied.

Increasingly that expertise is available in the form of specialist social media agencies, built from the ground up to help brands to listen, understand and engage in conversations in social media.

The market seems to recognise this. Altimeter Research recently surveyed 140 global corporate social media strategists and found that those with advanced social media programs were allocating their social media budgets to specialist agencies rather than traditional ones.

Just as ten years ago digital agencies were able to better serve their clients' emerging digital needs by building bigger, better and more motivated specialist teams, thereby innovating faster and developing a critical mass of best practice that accelerated the gap between them and their offline competitors service offerings, so the best social media agencies are doing today.


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