Inside the boardrooms of corporate Australia, executives are grappling to understand the impact social media could have on their business. Some nervously mumble: “it’s just a fad”. Others simulate online attacks, studiously testing their ability to protect their brand with 140 characters.
If they’re being honest, PR and communications professionals are also still trying to figure it all out. Many conclude (like I have in the past) big business has nothing to fear as long as they have a smart crisis communication framework in place.
But lately I’m wondering if that’s sound advice? Is a social media ‘fight’ becoming increasingly harder to win?
The online world is a breeding ground for opinions. Not only does it provide a voice to those who usually don’t get a chance to express their view, it also gives courage to those who usually aren’t used to saying what’s really on their mind.
Nothing wrong with that. Bravo, I say!
But, danger comes with courageous opinions that are not so well informed. And downright disaster lies in the hands of troubled trolls trawling the internet for a fight. Just one little mistake is enough for a social media mauling.
Look at what happened to QANTAS during its very own pyjama-gate incident. If you missed it (while you were holidaying on another planet) you can read about it here.
Or there was the time when supermarket giant Coles attempted its own social media experiment asking Twitter followers to finish the sentence: “in my house it’s a crime not to buy…”
What followed was a barrage of negative comments, some of which focused on the supermarket apparently not giving farmers a fair price for their produce, an issue recently aired via mainstream media outlets.
Like the QANTAS faux pas, I was sympathetic towards the Coles digital media team, until they tried to remedy the mistake by tweeting: “It’s a social media crime not to….finish a sentence yourself. Sorry guys that post was not meant for twitter.”
In the social media world there is an undeniable etiquette: authenticity rules. It gives you respect and credibility you need to survive the ‘mean streets’ of Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere. Just a hint of spin or the lightest veil of insincerity will be penetrated by the x-ray vision of the cynical digital native.
The social media ‘fad’ is unlikely to fade and I still believe that big brands have to be in it to win it. And when the proverbial hits the fan, they need to bravely step into the ring. So, I strongly recommend these preemptive strikes to ensure you are fighting fit should an online stoush come your way.
- Hire digital natives. And I mean real digital natives. The people who are obsessed with anything online who have social media accounts that are at least two or three years old and actively used every day. To really understand the nuances of social media you have to live, eat and breathe it.
- Treat your social media messages differently to those you send through more traditional channels. Test them for authenticity, and at the same time, test them for controversy against anything else that has been said about your company in other mainstream media.
- Never lie or attempt to cover up mistakes – you will always be caught out.
- Never attempt to fix a customer complaint via Twitter or Facebook. Instead, respond by proactively connecting them to a more appropriate channel. And I don’t mean ‘please call our customer care team’. This is a whole other topic, worthy of a whole separate post.
- Make sure your internal sign-off process is ‘social media friendly’. By that I mean don’t allow messages to be hauled up a bureaucratic ladder and filtered beyond recognition by a chain of commanders who have never actively participated in social media. Don’t allow hierarchy to dilute communication effectiveness.
- For those members in that chain of command who are not active social media users, make sure you are led by those around you who are – regardless at which level of the company they sit. And if you’re not willing to let go, you better join up fast and take the first steps to becoming a digital native.
Last week I witnessed a case study that illustrates perfectly why big brands must reconsider their traditional marketing and communications ‘rules of engagement’ if they are to successfully embrace the blogging phenomenon.
By ‘rules of engagement’ I mean the controls brands put in place to ‘manage a message’ when they work with a third party. It’s the usual stuff – carefully crafted key messages and a rigorous sign-off process to ensure those messages are used to the letter.
Ah, not any more folks.
Big brands that want to play in the blogosphere have to be willing to let go. Sure, it’s a risky game to play, but one that can reap enormous benefits if they drop the control freak tendencies and allow a blogger to do their ‘thing’.
What is this ‘thing’ I write of?
This ‘thing’ is a distinct and authentic voice followed by a loyal and trusting audience. Over time, this ‘thing’ may become as influential as a trusted friend or family member. I’ve heard ‘experts’ refer to this influence as ‘word of mouth’ marketing. But it’s more that that.
For some bloggers, their ‘word’ is nearly a celebrity endorsement. If a brand taps into this, they may strike gold. But back to our case study, where the only thing that was struck was an immovable rock.
The blogger in question was engaged by a major brand to write a sponsored post about an incentive they were running. Well accustomed to this kind of engagement, our blogger wrote a post, which she sent to the brand before publishing.
The brand asked her to modify her post, which she did. But in her words, the further up the chain her post went, the more changes were required. Eventually the blogger felt her post was almost unrecognizable as her own work, so she pulled the pin on the arrangement, refusing to compromise her own personal brand.
It was a difficult decision for the blogger. By pulling the pin she risked damaging a relationship that paid well. But posting the blog represented a far greater risk to her – allowing her own voice to be hi-jacked by another, eroding her credibility and readers’ trust.
She subsequently wrote a blog post about her experience because she wanted to share with her fellow bloggers, PR professionals and brands How Not To Write a Sponsored Post.
Needless to say, I think this decision will now pay big dividends for our blogger and pave the way for others. She has demonstrated that her voice is premium to both her readers and brands, because quite simply, she can’t be controlled.
And it is this uncontrollable nature that is the undeniable power of a successful blog.
Big brands, take note. If you try to mess with the voice that is the blog, not only will you fail to deliver your message, you could also tear the coat tails you are trying to ride.
There is of course a very important message here for bloggers who wish to engage brands successfully with brands via their blog about preserving and protecting their own authentic personal brand.
But that is another blog post…stay tuned.
A few nights ago, something kept me up.
Before I hit the sack, I tweeted about comedian Jason Byrne, who I had just watched perform at the Enmore Theatre. I alluded to one of his jokes involving, well, nuts (if you were there, you’re probably laughing hysterically now).
Lying in bed, I started to feel uneasy. I did a mental stock-take of my followers, including some of my clients, not to mention the CEO of a very large organisation who has recently handed me a dream job.
I whipped on my dressing gown, ran upstairs, booted up my laptop and in the still of the night deleted the tweet. I went back to bed but I still couldn’t sleep. Now I was uneasy that I felt the need to self-censor.
I first joined Twitter as a communications professional who had to keep up with the times. In my first few months I followed people in my field and posted ‘professional’ tweets to a small group of followers, who didn’t respond much.
Ho hum. I was starting to switch off.
Then I stumbled across some tweeps who tweeted about, well, ‘real’ stuff, as well as professional stuff. Some poked fun at some of life’s realities, like: surviving kids; surviving dogs; surviving marriage; and surviving hangovers. Others had more moving personal stories to share.
Those ‘real’ tweeps connected me to others, and soon my own ‘real stuff’ crept into my tweets. Before I knew it my ‘personal brand’ was busting loose and my followers increased ten-fold. People were actually interested in what I was saying. Most importantly, I was having fun.
That’s the thing about having fun. Sometimes we need a little encouragement to cut loose – especially us ‘professional types’, who are often on-guard to make the so-called ‘right’ impression.
Stepping back into the corporate world after a five-year break, it’s obvious to me many professionals leave their ‘real’ selves at home. It’s their version of self-censorship. I wrote about this in Undercover Mums, but I think this applies to a wider group. Just look at the sea of black conformity that pours from a city’s trains and buses every morning at 8.30am.
But is that what our bosses really want?
Throughout my career I’ve helped large corporations improve their communications, particularly to employees. The need to get employees to listen and respond is the same, but the method is changing. Companies are keen to ‘personalise’ their communications, and god forbid, have a bit of fun.
That’s because they realise when people have fun they are more inclined to listen, and if they feel they are in a supportive and safe environment, they will eventually participate. Believe it or not, as I type, textbooks are being written about this.
Don’t get me wrong, a level of so-called ‘professionalism’ will always be necessary – what’s fun for one person could be offensive for another. But professionalism should translate into mutual respect – not uniformity.
This blog post is just the tip of an iceberg of a subject I could go on and on and on about. But I’ll stop now – otherwise I’ll have to start charging.
So, going back to my censored tweet about nuts. Should I have resisted the urge to censor that tweet? Well, only if no one felt a-salted. Get it?! A-salted. Assaulted. Nuts?
Ok…I really will stop now.