Get Real: In communications strategy, being human is key

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“The ability to set up a profile on Facebook or Twitter, the wherewithal to update status in each network, the capacity to befriend people within each network, is in fact, child’s play. … There’s a bigger, more significant opportunity to make a true impact … the tools are just extensions of you and your expertise and artistry. … Engage or die.”

Brian Solis, Principal, FutureWorks

Over the last two weeks, I’ve had opportunity to work with two different conferences and to guide participants at these events through a deeper consideration of social media. In these conversations, we’ve explored both the “what” and the “how” of social media; always spending far more time on the what. It’s my belief that most of us need to invest more time in coming to grips with the philosophy and theory underlying great social strategy than on the tactical deployment of social tools.

As much as participants might have been hoping for content along the lines of “25 fail safe ways to use Twitter” or “10 strategies to triple your Facebook fan base”, when it comes to great social we want to nurture a focus on the house, not the hammer (to use the words of my good friend Andrew Swenson over at Wordpost), and that requires serious time exploring the context and conditions that lead to great engagement strategies.

One of the key pieces that led our exploration was, of course the concept (preached so eloquently by Cluetrain) that markets are conversations; that conversations happen in a human voice; and that organizations need to remember their human roots. Every time we get to this point in the seminar, it is clear that participants are incredibly engaged. They are nodding their heads, making eye contact, jotting notes, and a general “yes! This is so true” sort of vibe permeates the room.

And it makes me wonder:

How did we get so far off the mark that the very notion of communication as human, as authentic can be such an empowering “A-ha” moment?

What is it that prevents us from being human, from “going there” in our organizations and interactions?

Here are some thoughts on each:

We want to be taken seriously.

Many purePR clients are involved in incredibly serious work. Social justice, hunger, global initiatives, job creation—the missions that many nonprofits and for profits pursue are intense. I believe that many of us believe that the carefully tended tones and pruned phrases of corporate speak lend a sense of gravitas to our messages. The reality is that often these measured approaches strip the humanity out of the content.

We haven’t had to consider the others in the room.

The channels available to us over the last decades were not designed to allow for genuine exchange. That led to a conclusion that 2-way give-and-take was somehow unnecessary or messy, and a hindrance to an efficient process. And yet, we all know human is better.

We let Madison Avenue lead, because they must know what they are talking about (literally).

This one applies to nonprofit and small business clients specifically. Nonprofits often adopt a sense of needing to “play up”, when in reality what would serve the organization best is just to be true to its unique identity. And the reality is, Madison Avenue is playing a different game, and their rules are changing too. For those of us striving to make a difference via a mission-centered organization, there is nothing gained by emulating the ad world.

Social media has unleashed an opportunity for access that has profound implications for organizations that are really serious about getting people relationally involved in doing something meaningful and real. We need to get really human in our approach to connecting real people to the real humanity of our causes and concerns.


Organizations fundamentally fear losing control. Heads nod when I share that great social strategy requires a healthy appreciation for losing control, a strong value for letting people get into your conversations, and an absolute need to be non-defensive in your exchanges with your community. That all sounds reasonable enough. It sounds like something people want to be and know they should be in some far off utopia. But to lose control means a few things 1) you need to be – in many ways – more strategic internally to pull it off well, and 2) You’ve absolutely got to trust both your staff and your members. Both of these requirements are difficult things for organizations to do. Better to keep control, hide your warts, try to ignore your weak spots, and plug along.

But that strategy won’t create much of a future in today’s swiftly shifting social age.

These are just a few of the elements that lead people, genuine, honest, messy, real people to avoid being human in their organizational communication. What would you add to the list? And how do we start to push for a new tone and style?


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