Social media missteps in a PR2.0 world

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I’m currently working on my 2010 corporate communications strategy, and have been immersing myself (more than usual) into any topic I can possibly find related to social media.

With my mind already tuned in that direction, and my hypothesis taking shape that there is “nothing new under the sun; you just have to actually KNOW what it truly means to communicate” (even in the Webby world of PR2.0), a situation emerged at the office that put the idea of just what social media “is” into stark relief for me, and now for my communications team.

Here’s what transpired: basically a misinformed person decided to complain about the frequent Tweeting of a junior member of my work group. First, this person called the young staffer’s activity “blogging” (which it wasn’t), and second this well-intentioned tattler insinuated that this type of communication was absolutely inappropriate during the work day (which given that the staffer in “question” is exceptionally talented, exceeding expectations for her input to the company, sends tweets from her PDA in about 2.5 seconds (as do most of us), and had simply made a totally inane comment about the view from her window, made the entire allegation even more ridiculous).

But what this, and the subsequent who-haa that ensued (dare we say a “policy” will emerge) really demonstrated was that we have experienced a seismic shift in what we “understand” communication to be, particularly when it comes to social media. To younger-minded (not young) people, social media simply is an extension of other forms of communication: email, Facebook, Twitter, texting, talking on a cell phone, blogging, writing an old-fashioned letter, I suppose — oh yeah, and actually speaking to other people in my immediate reach — is all part of the same continuous conversation of life. When this young woman sent a tweet, it was no different than talking to someone in the room. And are we planning to stop that?

It’s not like this was necessarily a watershed moment for me intellectually or anything, but my extremely annoyed reaction did put my perception toward my organization’s social media forrays into terribly stark relief.

And I realized, we aren’t doing such a hot job. And that’s uncomfortable to admit in a world filled with savvy PR bloggers, expressive new marketing mavens, and chronically opinionated media experts climbing around our industry. And it’s even more uncomfortable to admit because I’m the person responsible for this at the office. But it’s the truth.

When faced with the situation, I became defensive for our staffer, and then just plain annoyed because I don’t (personally) perceive any gap between communication that I might choose to do via my cell, or via my Facebook page, or via my Twitter feed. It’s seamless, cohesive, and all “me.”

But I haven’t carried that attitude toward our corporate social media engagement, and I realized – it’s time to change.

Here is a listing of my (our) social media sins: (And having just finished reading the Engagement db report ranking the world’s most engaged brands and unpacking the clear connection between social media and good old-fashioned bottom line dollar success, I’m feeling all the more convinced that we haven’t been doing this right.)

1. Uncoordinated: Classically trained and degreed, I get communications theory (and I will talk some other time about how good theory is just that – good theory and doesn’t hinge on the platform from which the message is being shared) and so when new social media opportunities come along, we’ve jumped in but without a total understanding of how we need to build true momentum. Now, to a degree some of that risk-taking MUST happen, but there has to be a larger end-game in play.

2. Traditional: We’ve been (generally) treating our social media activity like a traditional conversation, where we push and the customer simply takes it. This is not necessarily problematic for us – yet. Our organization boasts benchmark levels of customer engagement, and so this generally loyal lot just sort of takes what we dish out. However, that lot is aging, and as we look to reach younger-minded customers, we can’t use new media in old ways.

3. Defensive: Instead of “deputizing people throughout the organization” to be engaged in a coallition for customer engagement via social media, we’ve tried too hard to keep people in-check with the corporate message. While there needs to be balance here, too – I think we’ve been a bit too preoccupied with hand-slapping and telling folks NO, out of fear really that their efforts will damage the organization. I’m not advocating a social media free for all – but I am thinking that we should do a better job of channeling the desire of so many within the organization to be involved in our new media efforts.

4. Unrealistic: Just because you put something on Facebook doesn’t mean you have a strong marketing or communications plan! And unfortunately, there seems to be a perception that social media should be a magic potion that will yield impressive results. The trick here is that IS actually true, but not without lots of internal effort, coordination, and teaming. And we haven’t done an adequate job of martialing the troops.

I suppose this sounds pretty depressing, and probably is raising eyebrows (“who let that lady in as the PR person!”), but I have a sense that our organization is neither unique nor too far removed from the experiences of many, many others in industries like ours, and beyond.

What I have come to embrace through my personal reaction to the close-minded accusation levied against a peer is that I need to think not just of personal social media use as inseparrable from “plain old communication,” but I truly, truly need to start to defend and advocate the same for our corporate use of these powerful tools. What it comes down to is the age old theory we PR people know intrinsically: it’s about the relationship. Talk to people, not at them, above them, or around them. Hear them, engage with them, learn from them. It’s what we’ve been wandering around advocating in board rooms filled with sales and marketing types for years. Social media provides an outstanding outlet for the PR professional to really strut her stuff – it’s time to start talking, personally.

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