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Who's Afraid of Social Media? Author, PR Expert Offers New Insight on Using Web 2.0 to Build Your Brand and Business

Frank Zeccola’s spotlight this week: Hilary JM Topper, President and CEO, HJMT
; Author, “Everything
You Ever Wanted to Know about Social Media But Were Afraid to Ask

The author of a new book on social media says she finally understood the power
of online media after a childish joke. “My son created a Facebook page for
me as a joke,” says Hilary JM Topper. “Right away, I got friend requests from
reporters at The New York Times, Newsday and Long Island
Business News
. I thought, ‘This is so much more powerful than I imagined.'”

Now the author of “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Social Media But
Were Afraid to Ask,” Topper admits that she was initially skeptical about social
media. “About three years ago, I went to a critical issues forum on blogging,
podcasting and Twitter and I walked out of there shaking my head,” she says.

Then, after the Facebook “joke” and ten months spent researching social media,
she’s a believer and a social media maven. Below, she offers tips and advice
for social media beginners and experts alike based on her research:

Why are people afraid to ask about social media?

It can be scary to admit that you don’t know how to use these tools. A lot
of people pretend they know all about the power of social media—but they really

When I first started in PR, we were using IBM typewriters. I was mailing 400
press releases a day. Then it was faxes, and then email. But now, many media
professionals don’t want press releases by email. They say, “Send us a microblog
and we’ll check out your online newsroom.” We’ve come such a long way and seen
so much happen in the last few years—and this takes us, as PR pros, to a new

What if someone criticizes a person or client on social media?

Here’s a great example of how to handle it: I recently wrote a blog post criticizing
a retail outlet near my hometown. They lured me to the outlet stores with a
piece of advertising that included a coupon book—but I wasn’t allowed to use
the coupons when I got there, because there was a different sale going on.

I wrote a blog criticizing the outlet for this. But a few days later, I received
an apology letter from them with a gift card enclosed. I then blogged that
I was impressed with their response.

That’s what you can do about it. That’s how you can turn it around. In the
days before social media, I would have gone out, told all my friends about
the incident—and the company would have had no response. They’d have had no
way to know if or why people were criticizing them.

Can you give another example in which an organization successfully
handled a potentially dangerous social media situation.

The Air Force has a big social media
department. When someone recently wrote a hoax post on Twitter saying that
a cargo plane had crashed in Texas, they got on it right away. CNN and other
news outlets picked it up, but the Air Force squashed the story within 53 minutes
through a series of Tweets. The story never got out and was quickly reported
to be a hoax.

What did the research phase involve for this book?

I started my research by looking at many different aggregators, especially
the most popular ones. I looked at YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other popular
sites. But I also looked at smaller sites like Identica, Yammer, Bright
and Second Life. I even looked
at social media sites created by news outlets, such as BusinessWeek and Inc.

Then I contacted my social networking community. I put out Tweets and messages
on different social media sites asking people for their thoughts on social
media in terms of building a business.

Based on your research, what are your top four social media tips for

I have clients in all different industries, and I would recommend different
strategies for each of them. However, generally speaking:

  • The most important thing is to first look at all the different sites. Don’t
    just take Facebook as the end all-be all. Research them all and see if they
    make sense for the client.
  • Then, look at the different aggregated sites like Technorati. Set up a
    blog line that includes all blogs and audiocasts related to your clients’
    industries. See what other people are doing and talking about.
  • Remember that it’s not just about social networking sites. Podcasts and
    videocasts are also an important part of any company’s social media plan. 
  • A lot of people create Facebook pages or Twitter accounts—but they don’t
    maintain them. They might write a post and then let two weeks go by before
    posting again. That’s a mistake. If you’re not going to put your heart out
    there, forget it. You should be updating five to ten times per day.

What’s the biggest mistake PR people make with regards to social media?

One of the biggest mistakes is that people get too self promotional. For example,
a small business owner I know just talks about how great she is. That’s not
the point. You want to engage and create conversations.

What are some examples of companies making the best use of online
media right now?

There are a lot of companies coming up with clever ideas. Some examples include:

  • St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has
    an amazing website. There’s a section where real-life patients talk about
    how wonderful the doctors and the hospital are. You can’t get better PR than
  • Skittles has a very interactive
    webpage where they took all their social media sites—Twitter, Facebook, Flickr
    and others—and put it onto one page.
  • There’s a blog called “Running
    a Hospital,”
    which is written by the CEO of a large Boston hospital.
    It’s very powerful when CEOs blog to their audiences. That makes me feel
    a bond with them and makes me more likely to want to go there.
  • I also like what Pizza
    has done with Facebook. You can order pizza on Facebook.

How will this book inform your work in PR moving forward?

I want to share this information and my experiences with other PR people and
marketers. If we’re all on the same page helping clients, that’s a great thing.
Let’s share, help each other and grow our businesses moving forward.

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