Years ago, an oft-heard public relations mantra held that corporate communications was all about the message, not the medium. It did not stop organisations forming separate broadcast and press teams as channels proliferated but the emphasis was on clear, unified and cohesive communications. A key rule was that the messenger should not become the story.
Now digital communications present a different challenge. Most large organisations operate some kind of monitoring system of what is being said about them on the web and the more switched-on have corporate Twitter feeds but many digital-savvy communicators also want to tweet on their own accounts.
Few employers are control-freakish enough to want to stop them and indeed, there may be benefits from having street-wise public relations ambassadors at the cutting edge of the web, giving rapid response and high visibility to the communications effort. For example, Scott Brownlee, head of PR and social media for Toyota and Lexus in the UK (@toyotapr; more than 8,200 followers), was able to interject quickly a couple of years ago when his Twitter newsline told him that the editor of What Car? magazine was en route to a television studio to discuss Toyota's recall of thousands of cars over allegedly faulty brakes.
Brownlee was able to tweet to the writer before he got there, making sure he had up to date numbers and understood the company's side of the story. And, of course thousands of other people were also able to read the correspondence.
'We were struggling to get our message across but when this came up it enabled us to communicate directly not just to the journalist but also to customers,' recalls Brownlee. 'By tweeting, we were able to go directly to customers, without having to rely on third parties in the media.'
Lines getting blurred
Alex Cole, the newly-appointed corporate affairs director at Sainsbury's, (@alexcole71; almost 300 followers), is an even more enthusiastic Twitter devotee.
'It's like the whole world is able to access an individual email or text message,' she says. 'I didn't even wait until I joined the company to begin tweeting about it. Twitter is blurring the lines between formal and mass communications.'
Her famous example tells how a three-and-a-half year old toddler called Lily catalysed a change to the company's Tiger Bread brand when her letter stating that it looked more like a giraffe was posted on Twitter and quickly went viral.
It has become a classic story of prompt and reactive customer service , particularly when the supermarket rebranded the bread, but Cole says tweeting on her own account about Sainsbury's, rather than just relying on the company's own Twitter feed (@sainsburysPR; almost 9,000 followers) also enables her to get across its messages about its '20-by-20' sustainability plan and other initiatives.
She sees four differences between the two modes of Twitter engagement. The first is accessibility, with Cole's Twitter feed making it easy to communicate to her around the clock, rather than having to know her mobile phone number or leave a message at the press office.
'We have a policy in the press offices that the phone has to be answered within three rings but if you phone on my business number and I am on holiday, you'll end up talking to someone else,' she says. 'Whereas if you tweet to me, I can pick it up wherever I am. In that way, Twitter works a bit like a mobile phone.'
Her second and third distinctions are that Twitter facilitates openness and collaboration with peers. In the Lily example, for instance, tweets on the subject arrived from other personal tweeters in the Asda and Debenhams press offices. 'This is uncommon and certainly not normally public,' she notes, adding that personal Twitter feeds can also foster more collaboration and openness within press offices. 'When it was known I was coming to Sainsbury's, people there did a search on me and figured out that I was on Twitter, but I think they were then surprised when they found that I was already following them,' she says.
Informality is important?
Cole also likes tweeting on her own account because she finds it much more informal than a company feed. 'I was in Tottenham one day and someone we seconded to work for the community groups there after last year's riots tweeted that the Prince of Wales was visiting so I was soon tweeting behind the scenes and posting pictures,' she says. 'The press office Twitter feed might put out a link to a statement saying that the Prince of Wales is visiting but I can do it with a totally different tone. And they can retweet that if they like.'
Steve Field, BAE Systems' director of digital communications in the US (@fieldSteven; more than 800 followers), adds that tweeting on one's own account can be perceived as more authentic than a press office feed.
Field says: 'The difference with tweeting from my personal account is that there is not just a flavour from me as a spokesperson; it is from me as a person. Your personal interests blend with your other interests. 'We really encourage tweeting at BAE. I would say that 60 per cent of our global communications team are actively tweeting. It comes down to trust. Lack of trust is why some companies are slow to allow their employees access to this channel. We believe in empowerment and trust is one of our core values.'
John Neilson, BAE Systems' vice-president of international communications (@flyingjok; more than 300 followers), agrees. 'I think people like the engagement with an individual,' he says. 'If you are just engaging with the corporate feed, you are not sure who the individual behind the posts really is.
'The great thing about Twitter is that it is making public relations public again. PR was always a lot more than just media relations. Twitter puts you in touch with a raft of people who did not connect with PR offices before.'But where are the borders between what is said on personal accounts and organisational feeds? Nobody needed to worry five years ago when the technophile in the press office was setting up web pages in his spare time or when PR people shared music on their MySpace accounts.
However, Twitter's speed, reach, credibility and instant accountability mean it is a tool that carries risks and some communicators are cautious about tweeting on their own accounts.
After all, some in the industry still insist - to the continued annoyance of journalists - on being referred to as anonymous spokespeople, rather than being named when quoted in the press.
Interaction with journalists
'The key is never to become the story yourself,' reiterates Alex Pearmain, head of PR and social media for mobile phones group O2, who tweets to more than 2,300 followers under the handle @alexpearmain. 'If the topic you are discussing is related to the business, it should be done by the business's Twitter account so you rarely see me discussing O2 on Twitter.
'It's about interacting with journalists but rather than being about industry issues, my tweets relate to how we have communicated. Otherwise, it just becomes an official spokesperson's site and we all know the dangers of PRs unwittingly becoming quoted spokespeople for a business.' Pearmain's doubts are shared by Sarah Pinch (@ms-organised;almost 400 followers), head of communications at University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust and chair of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the West of England. 'I do not tend to engage in NHS stuff,' she says. 'I use Twitter to talk about communications.'
Indeed, differences of opinion on this subject will commonly occur even within a single corporate communications office. For example, Thomas Knorpp, digital media manager at Sainsbury's (@thomasknorpp; more than 700 followers), admits he does not share Cole's enthusiasm for blended reality between work and personal Twitter lives.
'There is some cross over where some things can meet and I do have both accounts on my mobile phone, but for me it is very much about trying to keep it separate,' he says. 'I think Alex is more into rolling it all into one. 'Rival supermarkets group Asda, he notes, takes a different approach, giving all corporate communications staff their own corporate Twitter handle, though head of social media Dom Burch (@dom_asdaPR; 3,300 followers), actively flags his 'off-duty account' (@domburch; almost 900 followers) on his Twitter information tag.
'We do it our way and Asda do it theirs,' says Knorpp. 'We prefer ours.'
So what are the new rules of the game? Mostly common sense, says Brownlee, who advises against political rants, while Pearmain cautions to remember who is on your followers list.
'Don't tweet if you have had a few shandies and are on your way home. Remember your chief executive is following you,' he says. These sorts of concerns have led to calls for a corporate Twitter code of conduct but Pinch doesn't think it necessary. 'The CIPR has guidelines for using social media and my view is that Twitter will fit within the guidelines that already exist,' she says. 'I don't advocate writing a new set of rules. My rule of thumb is to keep things authentic and be true to yourself.'