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Hotel public relations in the age of social media
By feature writer, Daniel Edward Craig
These days, anyone can publish a review, photos and videos of their latest vacation and share it with the masses. So then how important is media coverage? And how has social media changed the role of public relations for hotels?
During the most recent ReviewPro webinar, Leveraging Social Media for Public Relations, I consulted a panel of travel journalists, social media experts and hoteliers on these questions. And while there were no definitive answers-we're kind of making up the rules as we go along-our panelists shared some great insight and tips. Here are the highlights.
Redefining the role of public relations
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that no one can agree on the definition of PR. I like the one given by the UK's Chartered Institute of Public Relations: "In today's competitive market, reputation can be a company's biggest asset ... Public Relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behavior."
Traditionally, PR has been largely focused on generating media coverage to help advance this objective. But the Internet and social media have fragmented audiences and enabled hotels to be their own publisher and to build audiences of their own. At the same time, review sites and social networks allow trip planners to seek information and advice from friends and other travelers.
As a result, hotels and travelers are less reliant on traditional media. And yet, according to Nielsen's latest Global Trust in Advertising survey, editorial coverage is the fourth most trusted source of advertising. It's more trusted than all types of paid advertising and surpassed only by personal recommendations, brand websites and consumer opinions posted online.
So to maximize effectiveness, hotels must strive for strength in all of these areas, and public relations plays a critical role in making this happen.
Finding and vetting social media influencers
The explosive popularity of social networking has given rise to a new breed of mass communicator: the social media influencer. Whether a celebrity, journalist or social media expert, these people have large followings on social platforms and can influence opinion and behavior at scale.
Some brands are taking advantage of the build-in audiences and platforms influencers provide. Recently, JW Marriott Hotels & Resorts collaborated with Ann Tran, who Forbes identifies as one of the top 50 social media influencers. As part of the agreement, Tran blogged and tweeted about Marriott International's upscale, full-service brand and its hotels to her massive followings. As a result, JW Marriott significantly grew its followings and experienced unprecedented engagement numbers, Marriott senior public relations manager Jessica Berkin told me.
But how to find and vet social media influencers? Resources like Klout, Twiangulate, WeFollow, Twellow and TBEX will help, but they only tell part of the story. During the webinar, panelist Liz Borod Wright, who teaches social media at Columbia Journalism School and is founder of Travelogged.com, recommended looking beyond the number of followers to quality of content.
Also, look at the ratio of followers to following and how engaged followers are. Are they sharing and commenting on content - or is it an endless stream of updates that most have tuned out?
Another challenge for hotels is deciding which bloggers to host. One of our listeners, Sarah, remarked that hotels are often misled by bloggers who either don't have the audience they claim and don't produce the posts they promise.
How to avoid this? In addition to evaluating the blogger's audience, engagement and content quality, you can check traffic stats on sites like Alexa and Compete. However, Borod Wright cautioned that this data isn't always reliable. An option is to ask the blogger for a screen shot of visitor stats from Google Analytics. But "only if it's a borderline case, because some may be offended," she said. And you certainly don't want a snarky blogger on property.
Assessing the value of online vs. offline coverage
How valuable is social media buzz compared to print and broadcast coverage? Perception of value has changed, according to Vivian Deuschl, a former Ritz-Carlton PR executive who now runs her own PR agency. "Four or five years ago, when social media became a must-have part of the marketing plan, hotels were happy to extend all the bells and whistles to bloggers," she said during an interview.
Today, however, a short blog does not impress a general manager.
"Now more and more bloggers are having a much harder time being invited," said Deuschle. "One thing still prevails: the GM wants three pages of print. They want something they can hold on to and see, not something people can skip over."
If the value of blog posts is in question, what about tweets, which have the shelf life of a tuna sandwich on a sunny day? Well, one advantage tweets and blog posts offer that print and broadcast coverage do not is backlinks to the hotel's website. So there's SEO value, plus the ability to track clicks and conversions.
Credibility and disclosure
It's not just GMs; many traditional journalists are wary of so-called social media influencers too. What are their credentials, they ask, and who exactly are they influencing? Moreover, if they're being compensated, is the content editorial or advertorial?
In the U.S., said Borod Wright, the Federal Trade Commission requires bloggers to disclose the relationship when endorsing a product or service. But rules for offline media are less clear.
That's not to say that traditional media are completely unbiased, either. When I was a general manager, I hosted loads of journalists, and of the hundreds of stories they produced I can count on one hand the number of negative comments. Journalists rely on the hospitality of hotels and destinations to enable them to experience and write about things they could ill-afford to pay for. In turn, they tend to overlook the negative and emphasize the positive.
It's no wonder travelers flock to review sites for the real story, warts and all. Although reviews aren't exactly immune to bias either.
Getting your stories heard
During the webinar, we debated whether sending media releases out on PR wires remains an effective way of garnering media coverage. Or was it ever effective?
Panelist Barb DeLollis, ReviewPro marketing director and former USA Today hotels columnist, said that many journalists are so overwhelmed - or underwhelmed - by media releases that they send them straight to the waste bin. Moreover, since recent updates to Google's algorithm, media releases now have little or no SEO value. In fact, sites that distribute them in spammy ways may even be penalized.
These days, DeLollis said, many travel journalists search social media for story ideas and contacts. She shared her top tips for reaching reporters on Twitter. She also stressed the importance of monitoring and reacting quickly to mentions of your hotel, demonstrating ReviewPro features that facilitate these functions.
Being your own publisher
Panelist Juliet Kinsman, editor-in-chief of Mr & Mrs Smith, recommended pitching journalists directly and shaping stories to attract media coverage. Her recommendations included "tell, don't sell", entertain and inform, include strong images, peg hotel offerings on current trends and share insider tips.
Kinsman also recommended publishing stories on your website, blog and social channels, which in turn can be picked up by bloggers and the media. As examples, she cited blogs from Standard Hotels, the Drake in Toronto and Watergate Bay Hotel in Cornwall. "All convey their soul through content about travel, fashion, music and art which isn't always directly linked to their own events," she said.
Creating stories that produce online and offline buzz
Amsterdam-based lifestyle hotel brand citizenM takes a similar approach with the citizenMag blog, a collection of quirky posts that combine storytelling, local arts and culture and concierge picks. Panelist Diego Sartori, social media strategist at citizenM, also discussed the company's wildly successful Test Sleep program, in which locals are invited to experience a hotel for free just before the official grand opening.
While a risky move, the promotion helps put the hotel on the map by building awareness and generating social media followings, engagement, traveler reviews and media coverage.
And after all, aren't these the key objectives of hotel public relations in the age of social media? The lines are still a bit blurry, but they're starting to clear up.
Click here to view the Leveraging Social Media for Public Relations webinar.
About the Author
Daniel Edward Craig is a former hotel general manager and the founder of Reknown, a consultancy specializing in social media strategy and online reputation management for hotels and the travel industry. He collaborates with ReviewPro as Industry Advisor, Engagement. Visit www.reknown.com.Copyright: © 2014 Daniel Edward Craig
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