Industry Debate: The Value of Community Managers

Businessman Worshipping Man on Computer MonitorAs the role of communications and public relations professionals continues to evolve, PRBC bloggers Keith Trivitt and Danny Brown examine an offshoot of the profession, the community manager. Used by many websites, message boards and blogs to manage online engagement, relations and communications with key audiences, the role of a community manager is one cloaked with some confusion, particularly on the executive level.

We welcome your thoughts on the evolving role of community managers in the comments below.

Should community managers be forward-facing managers of a company’s online customer service, or should their roles evolve into more of a strategic position? In other words, are community managers anything more than glorified customer service reps?

DB: To me, customer service is strategic positioning (or has the capacity to be as much). Your main point of contact with any business during the lifetime of any relationship is via customer service. Marketing might grab your eyeballs, and sales might turn them into fitted lenses, but it’s the customer service reps that brand your company. A consumer’s experience with them is the experience with the brand; get that wrong and you get the experience wrong. Essentially, customer service is marketing, sales, PR and community management rolled into one; without the sexy titles.

KT: This is a tough one to answer, mostly because I think in certain regards, you could say that all PR and communications professionals act as customer service professionals at some point. But, I do believe that the role of community manager needs to shift more toward one of being a strategic planner and developer of beneficial long-term relationships with brand advocates and partners for a company, rather than being a digital liaison for the brand and placating online problems.

DB: Any company that thinks their community (and therefore, their community manager) has no value is probably a crap company to begin with. Swap the word community for any part of that company—customers, clients, employees, stakeholders, shareholders, investors. Every facet of a company is essentially its community; all that’s different is the wording. If you have people that are skilled in enhancing the relationships between all facets—and that can be internal or external—then you sure as hell better start respecting them and looking after them.

KT: The evolution of the PR and communications profession has seen many offshoots (publicist, spokesperson, etc.) struggle to earn their respect as strategic planners for companies primarily because early on, these positions were viewed by many as a means to keep the public away from executives and to keep information from them (the classic “gatekeeper”). From what I have seen, most community managers do a great job of not being anything like this, but they also seem to have the reverse problem: some community managers are viewed by executives as being too cozy and too personal with customers and brand advocates, to the point where they begin to lose some objectivity about how to help a company grow. When that happens, community managers lose their strategic value to a company.

How does the communications/PR profession help to keep the community manager role from evolving into a “jack of all trades” position that is lightly regarded among upper management? In essence, how do we ensure community managers are viewed as strategic planners for a company’s online engagement, rather than the people who solely rectify users’ problems?

KT: To me, this question is at the heart of what almost every communications professional—and yes, I believe community managers fall under the umbrella of communications professionals—faces at some point in their career. For community managers to thrive and to be viewed as valuable strategic assets by a company’s executive team, the role of the manager can’t be solely placating issues people have on a company’s website, blog, message board, etc. The position has to turn into a strategic development position, one that has broad oversight over developing long-term beneficial digital/online/social media relationships with clients, brand advocates, customers and potential partners. Far more than simply keeping everyone happy, management needs to give community managers the freedom to help build the business.

DB: The first thing the industry needs to do is take community manager roles seriously. Don’t plan your strategy or campaign and then say, “Oh, we’ll use a community manager for some of the online stuff,” and then bring them in once the campaign has been planned. Start from the beginning; include your community manager from the start and use their expertise and input. They do this for a living—you don’t. You want online success? Use the folks that can actually deliver it, as opposed to fumbling along and getting excited because someone shared your news on Facebook. Whoopee-do—what next, sport? How do you turn that exposure into a return for your client? A community manager will show you, and then some. You wouldn’t ask your intern to run your $10 million Gucci account; your client is Gucci, your community manager is your $10 million superstar account director.

Do companies even need community managers, or can their customer service and PR teams combine to offer best of both worlds?

DB: It depends. Is the PR or customer service person adept at online communications? Do they have the skill sets to communicate in the language and nuances of Twitter, Facebook, blog comments, forums, etc? There’s a ton of examples available where a PR agency has taken control and completely screwed up (look at the recent Nestle/Facebook debacle). So, unless the agency and the customer service team have the skills to properly manage a community, then no. Or at least not until you’re up to speed and completely comfortable in that realm.

KT: Given the evolving role that public relations is taking on within many companies, as those of us in the profession continue to show our merits for truly understanding and engaging with all brand partners—customers, partners, clients, etc.—my feeling is that a truly good PR team, one that fully understands how digital communications, blogger relations and social media work, can successfully handle a company’s community engagement efforts. Of course, the flip side of this argument is what we addressed above in that some people view the role of the community manager as a jack-of-all-trades. And if that’s the case, in my opinion, PR practitioners begin to lose some of the value in the eyes of executives that we have fought so hard to retain.

At what point does community management separate from brand advocacy? Does it, or should your community manager be your loudest voice?

KT: From my perspective and experience, the person who should be the loudest voice for your company and brand is your CEO, or whomever is truly leading the company. From a public-awareness perspective, the CEO/company leader sets the tone for everything that the brand emulates, including the brand’s online community. Having a community manager serve as the loudest or most public voice only serves to muddle the company’s message, as it appears that the company is being led by a traditional executive team on the non-digital side, and then when it comes to what takes place within the company’s online efforts, consumers may be confused that the brand is being led by someone else. That can be taken care of, however, if it is explicitly clear throughout all communications that the community manager is serving as a liaison for the brand. But I’m not sure I’m seeing enough of that explicit differentiation, which I think leads to issues down the line.

DB: I’d disagree on the CEO being your loudest voice. Just because they lead the firm doesn’t mean they’re right for leading the public face (think back to BP). And many CEO’s have absolutely no idea how to deal with this “new world” of communication—you’re really going to trust them to not screw up and make the brand look like an idiot? Even the best PR briefing can’t silence an ill-advised comment from a CEO. To me, brand advocacy and community management are two very different beasts. Brand advocacy is purely dealing with the positives, and can be employees, customers, clients or simply folks that like your brand. Community management is dealing with both positive and negative, and turning into a positive (or at least neutral and showing your side). That doesn’t necessarily mean that a community manager needs to be your loudest voice—but they will be the ones dealing with all the other voices, while the CEO goes fishing. So, who would you trust?

KT: Great point re: BP. I’ll be curious to see how this issue plays out in the years to come as more CEOs and key company executives continue to become more social media and digitally savvy, and some may even come from the digital PR/community manager side. I think we’re going to see a better blending of community management, brand advocacy and CEO/executive communications in the future where the ‘loudest voice’ becomes a blending of several voices, all on-message with each other, and all acting as broad brand advocates.

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