Social Media – Release the Inner F@*!wit!

Yep, she be gathering momentum.

Having just made a big fat posting about changing my mind, eating gateau d’humilite, and advocating getting a social media policy (quickly, quickly, before it goes horribly, horribly wrong) if only to control those of your people who will undoubtedly, as sure as a werewolf comes over all bristly roundabout full moon, mutate into dribbly village idiots when confronted with social media –  and I surf directly into this.

Oooop. The fine lads and lasses of the Emergency Department at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital find themselves suspended pending a disciplinary, having decided to play the Lying Down Game (google it, my life’s too short) and post their pictures on Facebook. Seven of them were suspended. You’d have thought, simply according to the law of averages, that one of them would have been bright enough to say ‘hey up, guys – maybe we shouldn’t be doing this’. But they did it anyway.

A fair proportion of the blame lies with the hospital authority. Quite clearly there wasn’t a social media strategy (for strategy, read ‘draconian guideline policy’) in place and quite clearly, no-one had bothered to monitor social media outlets to see what was being said/posted. So you can’t wholly blame the employees – they had a right (I guess) to expect to be protected from themselves.

Now – before anyone points out that I’m being a hypocrite and a two-faced, mealy-mouthed, stance-changer (having made it very clear that I believe social media to be impossible to monitor or regulate) – when I say ‘monitor social media’ what I mean is having a quick look at Facebook and Twitter and searching for the name of your brand, company or organisation.

In this case, it wouldn’t have been too difficult to track down the Secret Swindon Emergency Department Group. 

Actually, on reflection, maybe those employees on suspension deserve everything that’s coming to them.

Social Media – Sadly, Doing Nothing is Not an Option

It’s one of those horrible moments of dawning realisation, the sinking feeling of impending doom, the painful awareness that the buggers have, in fact, in some way, succeeded.

Yes, ladies and gents, fellow sceptics, I’m afraid that, like it or not, as communicators we are all going to have to embrace social media and actively do something about it. As you may know, this is a bit of a shift for me. I’ve always been of the opinion that there are far better ways of promoting your brand, company or organisation and – while you should not ignore it – social media is one of those things that you keep an eye on (watching for significant change or potential threat) with an 85% certainty that it’s a passing fad and it will go away.

(This opinion is not just something I made up in the bath, mind, it’s the result of having read all sorts of different points of view and assimilated a reasonable amount of data. Some of the latest stuff says that there are now 44.5m Twitterators globally and that, in the UK, the fastest growing age range for Twitter is the over 50s (this from Nielsen). Search the web – there’s loads of stuff – but it all (in a roundabout way) points to two things. That no-one really understands where social media is going or how to harness it and that, unless someone develops that understanding, it is (and will remain) little more than a passing fad.)

Of course, as with any new shiny object, there are those who are terrified that they’re missing out on the next big thing and there are those who feed on that terror to further their own ends. So we’ve seen the rise and rise of the ‘social media strategist’ and we’ve seen more amd more companies embracing social media strategy – some sensible, some less so. At best, you have companies creating networks of highly, trained, carefully controlled brand spokespeople (which they probably already had anyway) with a specific remit to comment on their areas of expertise through social media. At worse, you have an unseemly and dangerous free-for-all, propagated by the cyber-hippies and cyber-socialists, who believe that vox populi, vox dei and that social media is going to change the face of capitalism as we know it.

Still – and so I thought – there’s no need to have – unless you’ve got some spare people, time and budget just sloshing around – a social media strategy. Be aware of what social media is, keep up to date – but as long as your company or brand has a good corporate reputation, is reasonably ethical, fair and honest, and has a decent corporate culture (am I asking too much here?) then you’ve very little to fear and very little to gain.

Of course, there’s always going to be the odd blip, isn’t there? Damage done to corporate reputation by misguided or malicious use of social media? People (employees who are either not enrolled enough in corporate culture, or who are simply not clever enough) using social media without thought for the consequences. Dominos Pizza. Then, earlier this week, Currys and PC World (UK high street retailers). And I’m certain that there are plenty of other examples that simply haven’t attracted as much attention.

Clearly, this is nothing new. There have always been idiots who, given an opportunity to write in a comments book, or give answers to a survey, or email to a suggestion box, are suddenly overtaken by a severe case of Tourette’s. The difference is that, in the past, inappropriate behaviour was generally confined to small audiences of colleagues, or the employee’s friends and family. If it came to light, then suitable disciplinary action was taken. Now however, the Tourette’s-afflicted staff member has instant access to an on-line audience that can number tens of thousands.

So, social media has forced our hand. Doing nothing is not an option. Every company that has a reputation it wishes to protect should now be working on, and implementing , a social media policy which outlines, very clearly, what is and what is not acceptable in the workplace and when/if discussing the brand. As social media use (especially content) cannot be monitored or regulated, it should really be banned altogether in the workplace and the penalties for failng to abide by the policy should be draconian.

All well and good – but imposing a policy like this will inevitably be seen as removing the employee’s right to freedom of speech. (Mind – since when did employees have a right to freedom of speech? They turn up, they work, they get paid for it. Nothing about freedom of speech.) Social media and its soya-sandalled, hessian-draped, patchouli-doused acolytes are creating/have created an expectation of utopia – where everyone is an individual, where everyone has a voice, where the relationship is not between consumer and brand, it’s between consumer and brand employee.

Thus, for the sake of your corporate culture, for the sake of employee relations, it’s not going to be enough just to have a policy on social media usage. No, you’ll also have to have an identification and training programme for social media spokespeople, and a communication programme in place to explain to general population why they can’t post to social media sites and why the accredited spokespeople can.

In fact, you’ll have to develop a social media strategy. Luckily there are simply zillions of social media strategists out there who’ll be delighted to help you work this one out. For a simply stupefying amount of money.

On second thoughts, forget you ever read this.

As you were. Carry on.

Social Media – Vox Populi, Vox Dei?

Those of you who’re regulars here will know my views on social media (blah, blah blah, don’t ignore it, yadayadayada, better ways of spending your money, time and effort) and you may aso have some passing awareness of how those views have got me into some small amount of trouble (mainly in the States, unsurprisingly) with those who see Social Media as the Next Big Thing, a digital messiah, a cure-all and something that will change life as we know it. (Don’t get me wrong, it might. Who knows what it might do. Ah – yes – that’s it – no-one knows what it might do. Which is the problem in grasping it with both hands too readily. It might be poisonous.)

Anyway, there’s this school of thought that says that the nature of the contract between audience and brand or organisation is changing. Has, in fact, changed. It says that the contract is now – because of social media – between the audience and the employees of the brand or organisation. That you should mobilise your workforce. That you should allow your employees free access to social media, to post on your brand/organisation’s behalf.

What the school of thought is saying, in summary, is ‘vox populi, vox dei’. Now, as any fule kno, if vox populi, vox dei, then the devil’s in the detail. But it goes further than that. The quotation ‘vox populi. vox dei’ is but part of a larger quotation:

“Nec audienti sunt qui solet docere, ‘Vox populi, vox dei’; cum tumultuositas vulgi semper insanitas proxima est.”

The literal translation of this is: “Do not listen to those who are accustomed to teach [claim], ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’, because the tumult of the masses is always close to insanity.”

I rest my case, m’lud.

Internal Communications – Here Be Debate!

This is a follow-up to the post in which I suggested that it would be an act of near-criminal lunacy to advocate (like Ford and Coke seem to be doing) giving employees of large organisations the freedom to post to social media sites, without any corporate control. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyway, here’s another reply:

“Yes, employees need to be briefed. And the article you quote ( states that they will be trained! So I don’t see the idea of letting trained, briefed, hand-picked employees interact with customers on the company’s behalf as a dangerous one.

 Can you imagine someone trying to Tweet on behalf of the company, answering customer service complaints/queries, etc. and having to go to PR for approval of every tweet? No – you pick the right person to tweet and train them so they understand the limits of what they can say and when to get help from PR/Legal, if things get nasty or something big happens. You’re talking about responding to a lot of “I like coke better than pepsi” “why does BK serve Pepsi and not Coke” types of tweets.

 Also, the Domino’s example is one where employees weren’t tweeting or videoing on behalf of the company. Running all official Dominos Tweets and posts through PR wouldn’t have stopped it. And certainly, this was a crisis situation and professionals handled it – I don’t think Dominos let just anyone respond on the company’s behalf.

 I see the Domino’s case as an example of how easy it is for what’s happening internally (especially the bad stuff) to go public, rather than a reason to try and stop employees from talking about work. And I don’t believe it’s possible for a company nowadays to maintain 100% control of messages that go public.

 One of my favorite reads is the Authentic Enterprise report by the A W Page Society:

Talks about how the walls are dissolving and what a company says externally has to match the way they really are internally – authenticity is key to success. This means trusting employees and moving away from pure command and control.

 Last thought: social media is conversational and personal. An individual needs to post – imagine if a company ran an ‘official’ Twitter stream with no person’s name, only press releases and ‘we’re so great’ messages. It would be a flop and would turn people off. The companies seeing a positive response to their efforts are those who let the customer service rep/pr person/exec be themselves and talk about the company (within a set of guidelines).

 My twenty cents!”

Great reply – and worth responding. 

The WSJ article actually says ‘some companies are training staffers to broaden their social media efforts’ – this is journalese for ‘I’m about to introduce two examples of companies that have told me they’re going to start letting their employees post to social media’. The companies themselves – Ford and Coke – talk more in terms of ‘teaching employees how to use sites’ and ‘authorizing’ employees to post without recourse to the company’s PR staff. This does not automatically imply training programmes for nominated Tweeters and posters – and in any case, when you’re messing with a company’s reputation, even if someone has been trained, you still monitor what they do very closely. Hence briefing documents, position statements and Q&A documents every time a senior executive speaks to the media (common practice in the majority of listed companies).

The whole Customer service scenario described is, I believe, discrete from the plans of Ford and Coke. Customer Service staff normally have sheets of pre-prepared responses which they use (reactively) to answer general complaints and queries and they never stray from the script. If I’ve read the WSJ article correctly, what they’re talking about is allowing staff to be active in their use of social media – not responding to general enquiries, but posting their thoughts, opinions and commentary. This is very different, fraught with danger and would require a whole different type of training/preparation. It could be argued that one cannot train someone to post to social media – you’re talking about delicacy, sensitivity, social awareness etc etc – arguably stuff that you cannot teach.

 As for the Dominos example – the only way to have stopped that happening would have been to have had a policy in place which says Dominos franchisees and their employees do not post Dominos-related material on social media. Any franchisee or employee found in breach of the policy will be fired. Simple and – once you make a couple of examples, pour encourager les autres – highly effective. You’re right, it’s impossible for a company to be 100% in control of the message – but there are ways that the company can get close to it.

I totally agree that the external perception of the company has to reflect the internal reality – but giving employees freedom to post to social media is not the way to achieve this. A good internal comms programme – enrolling employees in the corporate goals and ethos and allowing them to understand why the messages are controlled, what the potential issues are and what the effects could be – is.

I’m afraid that trusting employees to do the right thing is a beautiful idea, but in the real world it cannot work – not because they are inherently untrustworthy, but because they are human and therefore fallible. Even letting them operate ‘within a set of guidelines’ doesn’t work – guidelines are open to interpretation and – therefore – misinterpretation.

I read somewhere recently that in today’s web-based society, a consumers’ relationship is no longer with the company or its brand, but with the company’s employees. I fundamentally disagree with this. The role of a company and its brands is to make money – for its owners, shareholders and employees and, through them, for the country/countries in which it is based. This is capitalism, this is the way of the world – let’s not get it confused with the new New Age that seems to be arising from the social media phenomenon.