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During SXSW a few weeks ago I had the good fortune of meeting a number of my former colleagues from Dell, where I worked from 2002 to 2006. During my stint there I had the incredible good fortune of working on the team that would design, develop and manage Dell’s then new – and since much lauded – social media program.
But our conversation didn’t dwell so much on the good old days as the realization that years later many companies are still hesitant to embrace, or even explore, the full potential of social media technology. This despite the dramatic increase in cheap, user-friendly technology to support everything from targeting to analytics to collaboration. In fact, outside of some perennial leaders – many of them in the technology industry – many organizations are still grappling with the same questions and fears we saw almost ten years ago. And this is particularly true of companies exploring a social strategy inside the enterprise. (As just one example of this slow going, the folks at Prescient Digital estimate that only 4% of companies have a truly social intranet system.) After comparing notes about our respective clients and consulting gigs, we concluded many of the original arguments, tools and basic social media models we developed in those early days were still relevant, and very much in demand.
So why the uneven, reluctant adoption of new approaches and technology? While many have focused on potential fixes for PR teams and their clients (check out this excellent blog post by my former Dell colleague Richard Binhammer) I am more curious – and perplexed – about the barriers to progress in PR. Why is a business filled with smart , accomplished consultants so slow to adapt? Based on my perspective the past few years, I offer a few suggestions:
- Bunker Mentality – There’s no way to escape the dramatic tectonic shifts in new technology and the related impact on entire industries, including news media, advertising, retail, music, and not least communications and PR. The dizzying pace of new products and functionality makes it even harder to keep up with change. While some organizations seem invigorated by these shifts and flood of new opportunities, many have reacted with grudging, superficial tactics without changing their strategy or business model. In many ways, they are still in denial.
- Inertia – The sad reality in any corporate setting (indeed, perhaps even in human nature itself) is that there is very strong momentum for doing things the way they’ve always been done, particularly in times where staffs are lean and driven by short-term objectives. And despite all the hype around innovation and risk, very few organizations have cultures that encourage, or even allow activity outside the norm. Often, companies need a major event like a new strategy or leader to encourage a shift in direction. Without that, it’s difficult to change old habits.
- Functional Insularity – Functional departments that would typically help spark and support innovation and change – or at least be the sources of new ideas and information – are often the most insular, reactive ones of the bunch. HR and IT, for example, are in many cases reluctant bystanders to progress and sometimes surprisingly uninformed about new technology or trends. (In some of my social media projects, in-house IT departments are either reluctant partners or standing on the sideline.) The one department that seems to have embraced change, albeit sometimes reluctantly, is marketing. PR is often caught in the middle of this dynamic and too often unwilling or unable to drive its own momentum.
- Boomers Dominate Leadership – Though statistics suggest boomers are among the fastest growing users of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, many older workers are less familiar and comfortable with new technology, social or otherwise. This helps explain anachronisms like the CEO who refuses to use email or others who shun any type of digital discourse. The grizzled leadership in many PR companies has the same generational anxiety about trying new tools and approaches. This trend should change as younger, much more tech-savvy workers gain leadership roles.
- Tyranny of Today – Many communication professionals operate at a hyper pace and in a routine that leaves little room for introspection or learning. In that context, it’s easy to simply continue focusing on immediate projects and put off professional development – both formal and otherwise. Add to this the reality that many clients and peers are also focusing on their daily priorities, and paying little attention to broader issues outside their immediate tasks. Perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from peers struggling to understand and incorporate new technology is “I just don’t have time.”
- Knowledge Gap – Save perhaps for a few precocious millenials, very few of us in the PR industry start with a deep base of knowledge in social media or related technology. What we know is what we’ve learned in the past decade or so as social media has become more prevalent in our lives. So it takes effort and commitment to remain in learning mode and stay current on major trends and new platforms. Unfortunately, it seems too many PR pros are counting on a few resident tech nerds or outside experts rather than upgrading their own knowledge base.
Taken together, these factors help explain the myopic outlook and slow adoption of social media in PR. And I’ve experienced every one of these barriers, so I have some understanding for the challenges in our business. But they shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction. I don’t want to be having this same discussion in 5 years.
One of the ongoing challenges of my consulting work the past few years has been to convince clients to engage their employees in their external social media efforts. The argument for doing this is very solid – see this excellent post by Dion Hinchliffe of Dachis Group on the benefits and requirements of using employee advocates through social media. Perhaps the best argument for activating employees is that they are highly trusted by consumers and customers alike. So why is this not happening more often?
In my experience there are several answers to this question. For one thing, many organizations are still reluctant to engage in any social media activity – external or within the enterprise – so it’s understandable that their employee outreach strategy would also be nascent. Others are extremely concerned about rogue employees who can compromise the reputation of the company in one tweet or YouTube video, and can bring up several recent examples to support their position. A surprising number of companies (from my experience) prefer to wait and see, despite the fact they know their employees are already active on social media platforms (such as unofficial company Facebook pages) without the benefit of clear direction, guidelines or training. Companies react differently to these unsanctioned sites and posts – some prefer to turn a blind eye, while others try to quell the comments through punishment and/or additional training. I’ve also seem the other extreme, where cherry-picked employee advocates stray too much into cheerleading (think obnoxious, repetitive Twitter hype) and lose the authenticity and credibility their role demands.
But perhaps the biggest reason – and unspoken truth – is that some company environments are poisoned by distrust, disillusionment and woeful lack of engagement. If many of your employees are unhappy and discouraged, does it make sense to give them full license to represent the company with consumers and customers? Of course, the answer is no. Or at least, not all in one shot. These companies need to fix their workplace culture and foster engagement and collaboration within their walls before they think about activating their staff on social media platforms. (In fact, disgruntled employees can damage a company’s reputation through their actions and comments whether or not they are using social media.) But that’s not an excuse for complete inaction. A social media strategy can allow for a smaller team of ambassadors at the outset, who are selected for specific roles and expertise, provided ample direction and support and highly trained. Real-time monitoring is also critical, not only to assess impact with consumers but also to identify potential issues and ensure ambassadors don’t operate outside the guidelines.
Ultimately, companies need to realize their employees represent them – whether formally or otherwise – and will often be active on social media platforms with or without formal guidance or consent. The best approach is developing a realistic plan to ensure employees are informed, directed, trained and supported to represent the company in a positive light. Using a proactive strategy will allow companies to deploy their best marketing and PR asset – their team members.
Earlier this year Forrester came out with another study commenting on the trend towards increased mobility of technology, and the important implications for marketers. (Here’s another good summary on enterprise mobility trends.) In fact, mobile access to digital information and tools is becoming almost ubiquitous in some developed countries. As Forrester notes in the report: With more than 1 billion smartphones in consumers’ pockets at the beginning of 2013, mobile is driving a second Internet revolution that’s even more profound than the first one. Mobile creates new value for consumers and businesses, alters cost structures, and disrupts ecosystems. That’s why marketers must move away from tactical mobile efforts to more transformative mobile marketing strategies in 2013.
This disruptive technology is changing how consumers conduct a wide range of activities and use an expanding array of applications and tools – from accessing their email, to banking to downloading an e-book or watching a movie. And the trend is still evolving in both scope and amplitude; in fact, the very definition of mobility is changing. It’s not enough to just address the use of smartphones, or even the booming use of tablets. The recent emphasis is towards “wearable” devices (like Google Glasses) cars and TVs that extend the mobile experience.
Is this mobility trend another example of how internal communications, and employee engagement efforts, lag marketing trends or externally focused practices? There are huge potential benefits to a robust, relevant internal mobile strategy for organizations. In a mobile environment, the traditional hurdle of access to information and communication sources – which for many workers remains elusive – becomes irrelevant. Furthermore, communication teams can personalize content based on device, role, context (time, knowledge, location) and even personal preference. Mobility provides unique convenience and immediacy – potentially giving employees the ability to do “anything, anywhere and anytime.” It can also provide workers with access to real-time data, a critical benefit in many occupations.
Yet, my personal experience suggests many companies have rudimentary or nascent mobile strategies to reach employees; many appear to still be struggling simply to make their intranet or other digital sources available to their workers. Few are adequately addressing the booming use of smart phones – still debating BYOD issues and/or not distributing smart tools broadly across their workforce. Even fewer organizations outside technology circles are focused on tablets, which are the biggest growth area. Even those considering how to share content across mobile devices do little to help employees create or share content, or collaborate using these same mobile tools. I recognize companies have to address the security, support and cost issues associated with a shift to mobile, but those excuses are wearing thin after several years of discussion.
Some observers are more optimistic about enterprise adoption – check out this article - arguing that the gap between personal use of mobility and work use will continue to narrow. This blog post suggests the expanded use of personal devices in the workplaces (extending to non-executive staff) will continue to drive adoption of mobile applications inside the enterprise. What both of these articles make clear is that even companies reluctant to jump on the mobility bandwagon need to evolve their reliance on their internal “network” (typically secure corporate email, LAN network and intranet) or they risk seeing those corporate channels becoming irrelevant.
I’ll be watching with interest to see if and how companies move towards this mobility trend to improve their workplace communications.
A recent war of words – played out on the Web between Gawker and Reddit – was only the latest example of the argument surrounding the right approach for screening comments on the Intranet. In this case, the folks at Gawker helped to out one of the most notorious trolls on Reddit, which is a popular hangout for anonymous users who like to push the envelope on what is appropriate content. The discussion surrounding this issue raised important questions about privacy, conduct rules and the quality and scope of free expression. I have to admit I’m glad Gawker “outed” the troll in question – since I found his work toxic – but I wish Reddit would have more taken proactive steps to purge their site of the most egregious abuses.
This online polemic brought to light an unfortunate truth about the Web; the sad state of commentary of many sites and platforms. Several years ago, when new social platforms greatly expanded and facilitated the process of online commentary, I was optimistic that communities (both large and specific to sites and authors) would generate a fairly useful and candid exchange of ideas. There would always be outliers and pesky critics who seem to spend all their waking hours on sites, of course, but on balance the community would self-regulate and provide a range of reasonable ideas and arguments.
Unfortunately, based on what I’m seeing online lately I have to admit that is often not the case. Many comment sections – even for websites and platforms where you would expect good self-regulation and informed users – are a wasteland of trolls, spammers and perverts. Some of the worst offenders are political hacks that don’t even bother with original content, re-posting their canned message numerous times with little logic. If there are rules of conduct and filters for inappropriate language, they are not immediately apparent. I suspect many of the sites are rarely if ever moderated or edited. I realize that some topics invite strong opinions – notably news and political sites – but the noise has spread well beyond the expected sites and platforms. Take a look at this recent example on CNN, where a seemingly innocuous (and positive) news post about Drake getting his high-school diploma sparked a nasty, racist diatribe of abuse.
Most communication professionals would agree the ideal is to foster robust dialogue on the Web – and to allow questions, comments and suggestions that help extend and enrich the discussion (or related products and services.) But that choice is no longer automatic given the bottom-feeder trash on many comment sections. The key question for many has become – is it even worth it to try to manage the comment sections? More pointedly, how do you encourage and filter comments without coming down too hard on either censorship or chaos? This question is a critical issue not just for individuals and organizations on the web, but also for companies striving to engage their employees through internal platforms behind the firewall.
My take is that allowing anonymous comments – particularly inside a secure, corporate platform – opens the door to the worst abuses. Even without formal identification or registration requirements, the quality of dialogue would greatly improve with more diligent moderation. Set common-sense rules and enforce them. Where abuses do occur – whether based on a site’s conduct guidelines or broader legal restrictions – site managers should take responsibility and remove and/or punish the offenders, rather than taking a hands-off approach with a blanket defense of freedom of speech. Whatever the response, something has to change or I fear many comment sections will be left to a vocal, vitriolic minority that erodes the credibility and relevance of the conversation, as well as the sponsoring sites and organizations.
Every year, I pay close attention to Mary Meeker’s annual presentation on internet trends. Meeker, one-time analyst at Morgan Stanley and now partner at Kleiner Perkins, has become famous (some would say infamous) for her internet analysis and market projections. Her presentation and commentary is always worthwhile for any PR professional – particularly given the critical and growing impact of the Web and technology on communications and advertising.
Once again, my reaction to Meeker’s analysis is focused not so much on her conclusions, which are cogent and important, but in the apparent gap between technology trends and the state of corporate communications. Allowing the caveat that my perspective is totally subjective and anecdotal (based on recent first-hand experience with perhaps twenty organizations largely based in North America) I see some notable gaps.
Let me start with a snapshot of relevant trends from Meeker’s presentation:
- Globalization – More than 80% of users of the world’s top internet properties (including Facebook and Google) live outside the United States. In 3 years, China added more internet users than exist in the U.S.
- The Web is social – Social networkers around the world now outnumber internet users.
- Mobility – Mobile technology (led by 3G Smartphones and the unprecedented adoption of tablets) continues to grow at historic rates. Mobile search and access to social networks is growing rapidly. Mary suggests the mega-trend of the 21st Century is the empowerment of people via mobile, connected devices.
- Digital content – User interfaces and digital content is moving from text and icons to a new combination of sound/touch/video. Content is now accessed, moved and altered through a simple touch on the screen.
- Content aggregation – Content is increasingly being packaged, and accessed, though sites that aggregate rather than create original content.
Now let’s compare each of these trends to what I typically see in my communication work:
- Globalization - Most companies struggle with truly global communications, and rarely make a concerted effort to ensure their content is representative and relevant across their international locations. Call it the HQ syndrome. Many don’t bother to address the most obvious challenge of foreign language in their corporate outreach; English is the default language, even in organizations with a majority of staff outside North America.
- The Web is social - Despite the tremendous growth and opportunity of social technology, many organizations still hesitate to introduce even the most basic social platforms (such as internal blogs) despite the fact most intranet platforms now come with built-in social capabilities. Even fewer encourage and train their staff to be online ambassadors or interact with customers. Some organizations have yet to introduce employee Web policies.
- Mobility - Despite the proliferation of mobile devices, only a hand-full of companies I’ve worked for/with use company-supplied or personal devices for communication purposes, and that is often limited to text digests. Even organizations with many remote staff and/or manufacturing environments where workers don’t have access to computers, mobile outreach is limited. Many companies still ban use of iPhones or other Smartphones that aren’t officially supplied.
- Digital content - Text pushed out via email is still king in corporate communications, with a surprising paucity of original video content, and even less packaged audio (though I’ve seen…or heard…some innovative programs that leverage podcasting and DVDs to train or inform staff.) The ubiquitous Powerpoint slides, which can now feature interesting visuals and compelling design, are often limited to busy, generic text. Photos are becoming more common, but there is rarely a proactive program designed to help create and share original photography. In terms of interfaces, I’ve yet to see an intranet (or many external websites) that’s anything close to the iconic, visualized interface used by many technology providers.
- Content aggregation – Too many companies still believe in the build-it-and-they-will-come come mantra, limiting their online presence to official corporate sites with dubious prospects. (The obvious exception is companies that market and sell online.) Most content on corporate sites is usually produced by the organization, and often self-serving. On the internal side the same trend applies, but with even less access to external content or feeds. Usually, a fairly rigid hierarchy of approved authors prevents staff from being active content contributors.
Even allowing for aversion to risk and cultural differences across workplaces, I’m surprised our profession appears so out of step with emerging trends. From personal experience, I know it’s difficult to go against corporate inertia, but we risk losing our credibility and relevance if we don’t counsel our clients/leaders to consider these trends and look for opportunities to innovate and improve.
It’s rare a day goes by without another example of an employee getting fired or reprimanded for posting something inappropriate on their Twitter account, or a company being forced into damage control due to an off-color comment or tone-deaf message. I read this example of Congressional staffers and their ill-advised Twitter chatter this morning. There are countless other blunders that have generated heated coverage – ranging from political scandals (hello Tony Weiner) to marketing snafus. All this noise usually creates two concerns, or conclusions, with many of my clients:
- Social media is very risky for organizations…probably too risky
- It’s very difficult to regulate and monitor social media interaction
As I’ve written before in this blog over the years, I think the fears of social media are overblown and misdirected. Yes, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook allow content and commentary to spread globally quickly – whether it’s positive or critical. But a cursory review of the most celebrated social media snafus (including the one referenced above) reveals that in most cases the controversy could easily have been avoided with basic common sense: Don’t lie. Don’t use inappropriate language or content. Be nice. Play fair. I would argue these are the same guidelines employees would use with any other workplace forum or channel (including company email.) In fact, I am often amazed at how ridiculous and ill-advised these controversial posts are…causing me to ask rhetorically what were they thinking?
The issue of monitoring and managing social media outreach is also surrounded by misconceptions. Companies can use a wide range of user-friendly tools to monitor the Web and track posts, triage comments or questions and identify emerging trends. With regard to organization, many of recognized social media leaders use a small, dedicated team and simple planning process to direct their social media efforts. In other words, this doesn’t have to be that overly costly or complicated. The barriers to entry for social media are very low for individual and institutional users alike.
Rather than blaming social media channels – which are inherently neutral and provide incredible platforms for robust, real-time conversation with millions of users – company leaders should spend more time selecting and training their staff, and determining the strategic purpose of their social media activities (even if they are mostly passive and reactive.) These steps don’t have to be onerous. Many of the most successful companies actively using social media – notably Dell, IBM, Best Buy and Starbucks – have clear and simple policies and objectives. And determining if and how you want to get involved can (and should) be shaped by due diligence and strategic planning.
The fact that some have made mistakes using social media platforms is an indictment of the culprits, not the technology.
Universal McCann’s latest “Wave” global report - which they claim is the longest running and largest study dedicated to social media – provides an essential statistical benchmark on the evolution of social media. The key findings this year are no surprise: the survey of thousands of global internet users confirms that social media remains an explosive, dynamic phenomenon that is changing how we interact, think, feel and behave. This particular study focuses on how brands are engaging with consumers in social media.
The big takeaway from this study is that data suggests there is huge demand for a more social, interactive relationship with brands online. Almost half of active internet users – who collectively visit social networks 1.5 billion times every day – are joining brand communities. This is occurring despite a steady decline of users visiting “official” company websites and the prominence of peer-to-peer brand recommendations. In short, consumers increasingly want to engage with brands in social media, but on the right terms. The key, according to the report authors, is to identify the kind of relationship users want with brands, and to create corresponding social media programs. Put another way, companies must understand the needs and motivations of consumers as a critical first step in their social media planning. The catch is that these needs differ widely by country, topic (or category) and audience – so brands should seek granular information on their target consumers to detail their habits and preferences. This approach means selecting the platform or network comes last, not first. And that doesn’t mean returning to the hard sell, which still remains anathema to many internet consumers.
Here are other highlights of the survey:
- Social networks have become more embedded in our everyday lives as the range of online activities and frequency of usage continues to increase;
- Social media use varies widely depending on geography and user demographics;
- Users have a wide range of motives for accessing web platforms, and select different platforms for different purposes. (Again these motives vary widely by geography.)
- Though penetration among 16-24 year olds remains highest, the 25-34 age bracket has seen the biggest jump in usage (from 52% to 70% in 3 years);
- Social networks have become the main forum for social interaction, even bypassing face-to-face contact;
- Content sharing continues to be popular, though it’s now occurring on a wider range of platforms;
- Personal blogs and forums are losing some traction, but are also becoming more specialized and targeted. Micro-blogging, on the other hand, has quickly grown into a mass market activity;
- There’s been a significant shift to accessing social media through mobile devices and applications;
- On the brand front, primary reasons for joining brand communities (usually on social networks) include learning about the brand/product, getting advance news on products, and gaining access to free content.
Social media technology – or Web 2.0 – has been around for several years now, and for most organizations debate on social media activities has shifted from if to how. Despite an accumulation of case studies and ubiquitous social media “experts” selling their wisdom, however, many organizations are still struggling to define and execute a viable strategy.
Brian Solis, a thought leader with Altimeter Group, recently published a helpful checklist of best practices for brand building in social media. Beyond the useful tips, Solis highlights some of the common challenges – and shortcomings – of social media activities in the marketplace. Perhaps most notable is the stubborn focus on marketing – impulsively building branded properties across social channels primarily to promote the brand and spur sales – at the expense of relevant content and sustained engagement. This myopic approach fails to consider the ultimate litmus test for any social media strategy: is the activity/channel providing relevant, long-term value to targeted consumers? Not surprisingly, there is still a strong “push” reflex to many of the social media programs.
But lack of strategic focus and self-serving outreach are not the only problems. In my experience, the biggest and most surprising shortcoming is the lack of originality and innovation in the social media activities of many organizations. Many programs are tentative forays (branded Facebook pages) using obvious, safe paint-by-number templates. But for those who are interested, and motivated, there are plenty of successful, smart programs that go beyond the ordinary and manage to break through the noise. As one example, check out Secret’s anti-bullying campaign – Mean Stinks. As noted in this AdAge article, while many of the ingredients (channels) in the campaign are fairly typical, the recipe of multi-media tactics and content is original and fresh (no pun intended.) Included in the mix are a “good graffiti” app, referral info for counseling centers, a donation tie-in and the ability to upload personal video apologies or complaints. The result has been rapid growth in fans/friends, strong repeat traffic and a notable boost in Secret deodorant sales. (The program included links to purchase P&G products – a reminder that an appropriate link to sales platforms can be part of the mix.)
So what can we learn from this? While many organizations need to spend the time developing robust, focused social media plans, they can’t forget to add the pixie dust of creativity. That will help ensure they break through the noise and truly engage with their customers and fans. Smart, memorable marketing apparently never goes out of fashion.
Over the past few years I’ve had numerous discussions with clients and peers about the dramatic disruptions caused by new social media technology. In the early years, in particular, not everybody accepted the premise that these changes were in fact occurring, or driving fundamental shifts in how people gather and share information. Well here we are, several years into the so-called Web 2.0 revolution. If nothing else, what has become widely acknowledged – even among the most recalcitrant naysayers – is that we are truly living in a digital world.
Indeed, a recent article by McKinsey provides another layer of accumulating empirical evidence that global consumers are increasingly communicating and conducting business through digital devices. This study mirrors a recent report by Forrester (presented at SXSW 2011) that suggested employees – most of them wired, social networkers – were increasingly using their technology within the workplace, firewalls and rules be damned. [FYI: both these articles may have restricted access and require registration.]
Here are some highlights of the McKinsey study:
- Nearly 50 percent of US online consumers are now advanced users of smartphones, social networks, and other emerging tools—up from 32 percent in 2008;
- Social networks, particularly Facebook, are emerging as the dominant digital-communications channels. For people aged 34 and under, they already are the preferred channel (by minutes of use per day), displacing e-mail, texting, and phone calls. Social-network use, growing swiftly among all segments of our survey population, has doubled among those over 55;
- As the usage and processing power of smartphones increase in tandem with the rising speed of 3G and 4G data networks, mobile devices are invading the domains of single-purpose gear such as game consoles and portable media players, as well as PCs. Smartphones are also becoming the device of choice for e-mail, Web browsing, and product research;
- As digital platforms multiply, consumer video-viewing habits continue to change. Among our survey respondents, 69 percent now view videos on their PCs and 33 percent on their smartphones;
- Only 24% of respondents are considered “traditionalists”, or consumers who are less interested in internet browsing and social networking and are more likely to read print newspapers.
Given this data, there seems little doubt that discussions on communication or marketing strategy, and more specifically social media planning, can start from the premise that the majority of our audience are digital natives, or largely wired and fluent in social media. And that cuts across geography, job and income level – though there are still important variations based on these demographic variables. In a sense, the conversation should now shift from if to how or what we need to do differently.
Of course, this has important repercussions for communication professionals, whether the focus is PR or internal communications. At minimum, we need to plan based on this new reality, and ideally take advantage of the emerging opportunities to use fresh, original strategies. I like the approach proposed in another recent McKinsey article that argued that in this digital age we are all marketers. As the headline puts it: “engaging customers today requires commitment from an entire organization – and a redefined marketing organization.” Here’s an excerpt:
For the past decade, marketers have been adjusting to a new era of deep customer engagement. They’ve tacked on new functions, such as social-media management; altered processes to better integrate advertising campaigns online, on television, and in print; and added staff with Web expertise to manage the explosion of digital customer data. Yet in our experience, that’s not enough. To truly engage customers for whom “push” advertising is increasingly irrelevant, companies must do more outside the confines of the traditional marketing organization. At the end of the day, customers no longer separate marketing from the product—it is the product. They don’t separate marketing from their in-store or online experience—it is the experience. In the era of engagement, marketing is the company.
This bold, innovative approach is a useful model for communication professionals. We must avoid falling into old patterns and timid ideas and instead develop new programs that are resonant and relevant to this population of digital natives. In short, we need to change. And we need to help our clients change. With the overwhelming evidence of the increasing reach and impact of new technology on consumers (including our employees and peers), there’s really no excuse for inertia.
I had to laugh when I read about celebrated theatre director Julie Taymor – who was recently unceremoniously dumped from the ill-fated Broadway production of Spiderman – blaming her fall on Twitter and Facebook. Call it a 2.0 twist on the time-honored tradition of blaming the messenger – typically the media but now social media platforms – for fanning the flames of criticism and spurring negative outcomes. (This is almost as spurious as Newt Gingrich blaming the “mainstream media” for putting his words in his mouth on Meet the Press a few weeks ago.) One wonders if Ms. Taymor would have complained if the buzz about her play would have been positive.
This argument has been a mainstay of frustrated politicians, executives and artists for generations when they receive less than positive media coverage or public reaction. And it’s an absolute waste of time. Yes, it true that networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become super highways for word-of-mouth – good or bad. And yes, its true that news media can sometimes sensationalize, focus on soundbites at the expense of context, pile on and…gasp…even inject some of their own bias in their reporting. But in the vast majority of communication snafus – resulting in a negative coverage and/or word-of-mouth – the driving force behind public reaction lies in the original statement, policy or product rather than the channel through which information or opinion is disseminated. Communication channels can help to amplify or influence public reaction, but they have no inherent bias or purpose in themselves.
So instead of blaming a platform like Twitter – which is merely an extremely convenient channel for sharing comments and ideas and provides a voice to millions of global users – folks like Taylor and Gingrich should focus on their own role in the communication process, and probe the reasons behind the mixed public reaction and commentary. In fact, implicit in these complaints about evil media messengers (or social platforms) is that the public reaction they reflect (and generate) is somehow unfair, or even misguided. This reflects a certain arrogance and tin ear, a trait that has caused the downfall of many public figures. A better approach is to accept the verdict of the public or fans and learn from the feedback.
The lesson for communication professionals – and for executives and artists seeking to promote their message or craft their public image, is that there is nowhere to hide in this era of real-time, 24/7 news coverage and social networking. News and commentary will travel fast and wide, and not all of it will be positive or even logical. There is still room to manage the public discussion and promote your agenda or argument, but don’t blame the messenger, or the customer, if things don’t work out the way you wanted. Instead take a look in the mirror.