451 goes 1-on-1 with Rick Clancy, former SVP at Sony Electronics, Inc.

As part of our latest installment in our 451 Heat Q&A series, we had the pleasure of speaking with Rick Clancy, the former Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications for Sony Electronics, Inc.

Rick first began his career at Sony in 1990, and over the course of two decades, was instrumental in overseeing the public relations and corporate communications efforts for the entire electronics division. His role encompassed media and analyst relations, and product marketing and promotions, as well as executive, employee, environmental and crisis communications initiatives. Rick was also one of the first communications executives to embrace the web as a new channel for brand communications and customer support. He now lives in the San Diego area and remains a communications advisor and social media advocate. You can find out more on Rick’s LinkedIn page.

We spoke at length with Rick about his career at Sony, and in particular, his pioneering work in implementing social media and online community management into the company’s external communications and PR and marketing campaigns.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your career in corporate communications at Sony. What were your PR and marketing duties like when you first started with the company and how did they evolve throughout the 90’s?

As part of the corporate communications teams at Sony during the early days our focus was primarily on media relations. Obviously the basics, press outreach, press releases, product reviews and the like. Eventually, this evolved into more of a focus on stakeholder outreach and management—the analyst community—and then global communications planning. With the emergence of social networking, our focus turned to corporate public relations from a much broader perspective. The bigger, faster, more integrated world forced us to become much more customer centric and conversational.

Q: Do you miss the days when traditional media outreach, ad placement and tradeshow marketing were the be-all and end-all of a sound communications and marketing strategy? Do additional channels create additional challenges that outweigh potential benefits?

I don’t miss the old days at all. There is a tremendous opportunity for PR professionals to be at the forefront of engagement through direct communications with customers. All PR pros should feel passionately about this evolution because the returns and rewards will be great.

Along those lines, this groundswell of channel development has certainly provided plenty of benefits. We can break down several internal walls and be more communicative with all of our different departments—human resources, legal, customer service. Externally, companies should recognize the importance of engagement and embrace a commitment to responsiveness over other potential challenges or issue.

Q:  When did you first recognize the role that the web could have in facilitating the way you communicated with the media, customers and employees?

Well to set the stage, about four years ago was when we first noticed an increasing amount of online conversation were taking place about Sony that we were in no way involved in. These conversations discussed our technology, products, customer service and even management. At this point, we were just monitoring and not engaging. Over time, our communications team began to recognize that there was no value in remaining silent, and if there were areas where we could effectively engage with people, and provide some help, we should give it a shot.

Q: How did your team begin to put the wheels in motion with an online engagement plan? Was their hesitancy from management about this approach?

Our approach transitioned from initial monitoring and tracking to assessment of the conversations. We actually incorporated assessment because there was hesitancy from both upper management and our customer service team, so presenting this information helped us to demonstrate why we needed to respond in the first place. It took a few presentations, but it became clear that Sony was ready to step up and address this stuff, engage and just become more involved online.

Once we were approved, we began to engage certain third party communities—message boards, sites like EndGadget and TechCrunch, Consumerist, green blogs, “mommy blogs”, and all sorts of tech blogs. We then started our own blogs (I volunteered to become Sony’s first corporate blogger), and eventually created full-fledge communities around our product line through micro-sites Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Q: How did you specifically interact with these communities? Did you put protocols in place that dictated who would engage, and how they would do it?

At first, we interacted with the external communities by engaging with editors. Eventually, we took the gloves off, introduced ourselves and responded via comments, message board posts, etc.

These decisions were generally made on a case by case basis—sometimes the communications team would address an issue directly, but on occasion, we would bring in other experts from different areas of the company to offer their take. Since our team was more experienced with third-party communications, and we did not have the experience of communicating directly with consumers, it was also helpful to involve the customer service team. That said, we quickly realized that you need to treat these conversations the same way you would treat a face-to-face interaction with a customer.

Q: Tell us about the launch of Sony’s first community blog. Was there a lot of management push-back and confusion with this move? Did you notice immediate results? Any highlights?

I made a point of it to infuse my personality into the blog. I introduced myself as Rick Clancy, not just a Sony representative. There was some sensitivity involved with a flack serving as the face of the company, but I was very upfront about my role and with my intentions for the blog. Over time, management gave me full reign to develop the blog and use it as I saw fit. I began blogging about a wide range of industry issues that I had an interest in, and had experience dealing with but I would also bring in guests from across Sony to get them involved. This kept things topical when I didn’t quite have the expertise to cover something myself.

I also made a point of it to develop trust through the blog. I recall blogging about Sony in comparison to Microsoft and Apple and other brands. I compared and contrasted products, and addressed their competitive sensibilities. It wasn’t all just all Sony, all the time.

One of the highlights was definitely the Sony blog tour. I would travel to different Sony retail stores across the country to set-up shop and meet with customers, answer questions, communicate produce updates, and assist where necessary. Each store visit turned into a great post. An event like that really represents the total integration of social media, PR and direct marketing.

Q: So, did you first foresee these new forms of communications (your community blog, Twitter, YouTube, etc) as forums for customer service and collaboration, or for PR/Marketing? Where do you see them now?

I certainly viewed these channels as a forum for PR/Marketing professionals, but the more we conversed with people online, I began to recognize the enormous potential for customer service professionals here. Customer service-types should embrace the opportunity to step up and blog, engage with customers like they would offline, and merge with PR pros to create a multi-faceted partnership based on responsiveness and added-value.

Q: Then who should lead the way with “social media strategies?” Should it be left in the hands of specialists, or should PR and marketing practitioners excel at understanding these channels and deploying the techniques necessary to optimize them for communications?

Because in the end, the message is still the most important component of these conversations, PR people are in a great position to lead the way in the online space. While customer service pros can definitely redefine their roles here, it’s the PR pros who have an awareness of the issues, a sensitivity to them, and an understanding of their relation to the firm as a whole. In PR, we’ve learned to listen, reflect on different points of view, and advocate on behalf of our company and client, and those fundamentals are all in play on the web. We’ll see these channels open up a bit more across a company, but PR teams, as well as agencies will play the lead role in monitoring, providing guidance for structure, strategy and authenticity.

-Jeff Benanto (@jbenanto)

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