Let me introduce, if I may, Bradley Hughes. Bradley is a self-described social entrepreneur who likes cycling, chess, gardening and reading. Bradley wears glasses, suits, votes green, has a keen interest in water conservation and he lives in Rockdale, NSW.

I’ve never met Bradley Hughes, in fact I’ve only known he existed for 10 minutes, but I do know he is an Optus customer. He caught my attention because at 6.59pm on 5 August, writing under the pseudonym @Entregreeneur, he tweeted that:

“Optus called following up another tweet I sent re. issue with my service.”

He then went on to write that he was:

 “Liking [their] new social media responsiveness.”

This means nothing to you of course, but up until recently Bradley had been a fairly notorious #badoptus Twitter hashtagger. (For the non-Twitter users out there, that’s not a good thing.) Furthermore, a few hours later, Optus had done such a good job of swaying Bradley Hughes’s opinion that he felt compelled to tell his 4,268 followers:

“You may have seen some of my past #badoptus tweets. Thanks to Scott at @Optus social media response team I can now say thank you #goodoptus.”

I suspect Brad’s above-average number of Twitter followers may have gotten him some preferential treatment. If Optus were doing their social media monitoring right they would have also noticed that, apart from liking yacht racing and chess, Brad is actually also a politician. A Greens Party Councillor to be precise. He’s what you call a ‘key influencer’. If Brad is whinging about your brand you want to be certain you get him on side because lots of people will be listening. Whatever Optus is doing, it appears to be working quite well.

Pandering to politicians is something good PR managers have done since the Magna Carta was signed, but it’s obviously only one brick in the corporate communication wall (and yes, that’s a typically accurate analogy). My ears pricked up last week when I’d heard through Mumbrella that Optus were pulling their sponsorship of the Kyle and Jackie O website. I was happy with the decision, in fact I’d actually started a mildly successful Twitter hashtag campaign calling for that outcome. Judging by the response Kyle got when he went on The Punch, and the subsequent boost in hits that site received, Australia’s social networkers were united against Austereo.

“It would appear that our society is experiencing death (or moral decay) by 1,000 cuts – and no one is putting a stop to it for fear, I assume, that the dollars will stop flowing,” was Naked Communications managing partner Adam Ferrier’s cry in an open letter to the ad industry that called for organisations to pull their sponsorship dollars. 112 people commented and most agreed. Almost all except for one Mr Ajax McCoy:

“What delusions of grandeur some of you people have in thinking taking a few sponsors away will cause the show to implode. Absolute dreamers,” he chastised.

“Optus couldn’t give a sh*t about its customers. I can’t even get a network half the time. You’re wasting your time… I doubt SingTel could really give a flying f**k that a few over-sensitive whingers are upset that a 14-year-old girl came into the studio with her mum for a radio prank, and it went wrong. They’ll be looking at the market penertration [sic] and the demo’s, not a handful of twitter posts.”

Ajax, it turns out, was spectacularly wrong.

While no official announcement has been made by Optus about the show’s sponsorship, their ads have most certainly been pulled from the website and it would seem that they were indeed listening to what people were saying about them in social media.

Considering that Optus were relative latecomers to the social networking game (their Twitter page only went live a few weeks ago), I thought it was worth asking what role social media played in shaping their communication policies in light of the recent rape scandal.

“We are not a sponsor of the Kyle/Jacquie O morning program – just an advertiser. I have actually made no comment about our plans, except to say that Optus regularly reviews its advertising relationships, but as a rule we don’t talk about our commercial agreements,” was the official response.

That wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for, but the spokesperson did open up a little more when I asked in more general terms what their plans were.

“Now more than ever, our customers are communicating online – so we want to engage with them and respond to them online too,” the spokesperson said.

“We have employed a dedicated social media team to focus on that area. The social media team are also training customer service staff on how best to engage with our customers using this medium.”

Given that Coles recently rejected Masterchef winner Julie as an ambassador in favour of a marketing strategy which involves “listening to customers and making improvements that really matter and moving the bar,” it seems the tide may be turning and the companies who’ve always said they listen to their customers might now actually be doing that.

Optus aren’t the first company to respond to customers on Twitter, and they won’t be the last to setup a YouTube channel, but we’ve definitely reached a point where social media has become an integral part of an organisation’s corporate communications strategy. Companies that aren’t active in the space have run out of excuses. If they aren’t engaging in social media, they’re actively choosing to ignore their customers. Customers have never liked being ignored, but the masses have suddenly become very publicly critical.