Imagine this: you are at a cocktail party: chatting, mingling, nothing out of the ordinary. Suddenly, a total stranger walks up and throws their Appletini in your face. What do you do? Throw your drink in their face? Arch an eyebrow and toss off a withering bon mot? Or do you walk away, consult your lawyers, then return days later with a scripted response?
This is not an idle exercise; it’s actually a reasonable gauge of any organization’s comfort with the all-access world of social media. Recently, a planner friend of mine told me how–metaphorically speaking–this very thing happened to McDonald’s after they posted a spot on a social networking site. Within the first few comments, PETA activists showed up and launched a coordinated assault against the ad, the restaurant, and most every aspect of the McDonald’s business. The client was horrified and wanted to immediately pull the posting; a corporate reaction that is totally natural and understandable.
But in this environment, it’s also totally wrong. This medium is ‘social’–even if you are there as a corporation, the group expects you to behave like a human being. You can’t suddenly lawyer up and start speaking in that robotic, Teflon language of corporate PR; this simply isn’t the venue. Transparency is critical. Imperfection is okay. Immediacy is everything.
People go to social media to talk, so anything that happens, generates discussion and debate. Returning to the cocktail party metaphor, how would other guests view that unprompted assault? They probably wouldn’t like it anymore than if someone launched into a strident political diatribe over crab cakes; it’s uncalled for and entirely inappropriate. Yes, the insult remains, the offense still happened and you will definitely need to get your tie dry cleaned, but in the end, the other guests will see that you were wronged, not wrong, and so based on your response, many otherwise neutral bystanders will now actually support you.
Negative opinions like these have always been out there, we just never saw them. They were never widely published. We never had web-scrubbing programs that could uncover them and bring them to our attention. Now that we do, the real challenge is determining the importance of any particular negative comment. Is that thought viral? Or is it simply the rantings of a crank? We need to know the difference. If we respond to every potential threat, we will exhaust ourselves in the effort and waste untold resources on this fool’s errand.
At Element 79, we advise clients considering social media efforts to take a brutally honest look at their own corporate culture and assess how comfortable they are with public exposure. A few take to it naturally, putting themselves out there in a highly-human manner, but many more recoil. They worry about liability and the need to protect proprietary assets. In the new world of social media, these clients are agoraphobic, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Emily Dickinson, arguably America’s greatest poet, was a noted eccentric who could not stand the thought of public spaces, and she did pretty well for herself. The same applies to client organizations; when you’ve made literally hundreds of millions of dollars over the years behaving one way, you need some strong fiscal arguments to change those ways. As of yet, there are no guarantees that entering social media will pay off for every organization. In fact you could create a rather compelling argument that to date, it has paid off for very few, and may never pay off for some. Every medium is not appropriate for every organization–that truth endures. The key demand today is for organizations to truly know themselves.
Which, interestingly, applies to people as well.