Social Media Is Not A PR Suicide Mission

“The dream is always the same,” as Tom Cruise said in Risky Business.


I’m sitting in my boss’s office nervously. She is waving some papers around as I squirm. She looks me right in the eyes and says:


“You’ve been on Twitter and Facebook and the message boards and blogs. You’ve seen the crazy things people post there.”


Yes, I nod.


“And you’re saying that we should get involved? Without moderating the comments or controlling the message in any way?”


Again, yes. I gulp.
(My boss is nothing like this, by the way. And I have never gulped about anything. I never even say "gulp." I promise.)


“My G-d, you must be crazy. You are going to take us all down. You’re fired.”


This nightmare is a composite of everything I have absorbed about organizations and their decision-making processes about engaging in social media. And I mean a LOT of organizations over the course of the past 7 years, both anecdotally and as viewed through the filters of traditional and social media.


I am by nature a risk-averse person when it comes to work. I’m not a trust fund baby; just like everyone else I need to eat. But I also follow my mind and my gut when it comes to suggesting what will work. Not just because it seems to me the right thing to do, but because long-term you can’t produce effective PR and be a liar, or out of touch, or inefficient.


So I find myself caught in this really weird situation, where I’m advocating for the adoption of something that is – absolutely no doubt about it – going to cause people’s heads to roll. Because if in the past you could make mistakes and cover them up, social media deliberately lays them bare, so as to make people trust you before they find out and decide that you’re a snake. But using social media, like investing in the stock market, brings risk along with potential return: Sometimes those who screw up, or who simply decide to speak their minds without a filter, can and do get canned.


Let me say it flat out, in case you're missing my message: Social media is NOT about specific tools, like Twitter or Facebook or YouTube. Any of those can be co-opted to subvert the essential idea, which is to open up the organization to feedback by creating a space for public comment and by bringing the discourse to the town square.
Social media is about building a positive relationship with your stakeholders, by not only telling them the truth (that is PR 1.0) but letting them in to the building to do their own inspection (PR 2.0).


The result, if you do it with commitment and integrity, is increased credibility; a demonstration of real, ongoing accountability; and greater responsiveness to customer needs.


Now in the future this will not be an issue. Everybody will do it. But in the meantime we are transitioning from 1.0 to 2.0, and heads are spinning. People are understanding that investing in social media is NOT about happy Facebook pages and press releases cut into blog posts. It IS about completely overturning the balance of power between formerly inaccessible senior leaders and their customers. The strategy is to make that relationship better voluntarily, now, before the customers who already own social media tools, and use them,  throw the executives over the side of the boat and start steering it themselves.


I am not the first person to explain social media this way. There are tons of us out there, all spreading the word. Including many seemingly "old-fashioned" executives. But since the proof is in the pudding, if you look around you at what passes for official corporate social media, you will find very little in the way of filter-free independent speech and very much in the way of glorified marketing brochures.


I know that a lot of people really do "get it," even if they can't implement everything they know to be right. And I know that the future will be better than today. We will all look back on the day when social networking was viewed as suspicious time-wasting dillydallying and be really, really surprised. Sort of like looking back on 8-track cassettes. With a mindset that says, "How did we ever exist without that?" Social media is a completely different approach to life. It truly, truly is.


We are now in an age when information is shared so quickly that if you respond an hour after a Tweet spreads, you are literally behind the curve. The technology is moving so fast that people don’t need to access Facebook from their desktop computers anymore – they can simply reach out via their smartphones.


Most importantly, we are already in a time when an informal culture of etiquette has sprung up where most of the time, people are normal and supportive of each other, and productive, online – not evil malcontents who are trying to spread the equivalent of nuclear doom. (Not that there aren’t creeps out there – but they’re not the ruling class when it comes to the social networking kingdom.)
In the world we live in today, two prominent sisters can be lucky enough to have a glitzy reality show ("Kourtney and Khloe take Miami"), and yet one of them feels free enough to publicly call the other's boyfriend a "sociopath" because that is what her consciousness, and her conscience, tell her to say. It's not scripted and there is no evident worry that any of them will lose their celebrity status. The Kardashians and the possible-sociopath boyfriend get it; it's time for the rest of the world to catch up.


In my nightmare I am scared of my supervisor. That's not how it is in real life; I know she trusts me, and I know that full acceptance and use of social media is coming. But there are still people who are just not comfortable with it. They do not see an asteroid coming. That’s really their choice. But this attitude has its consequences.
One of the most prominent among those, one that the PR experts typically don't talk about, is a potential brain drain. Because the people who use social media personally, and specialize in it professionally, can't help but be excited about it. Their minds have been changed – their brains probably literally rewired – to suit an environment where information is fast, free, and comments are generously shared for the sake of growth. Where criticism is natural, change is constant, and unexpected glitches are crowdsourced for solutions without blaming people for being at the limits of their capacity.
Talented people like this can't wait forever to infuse their organizations with the new reality that so many people are already living. And they don't want to spin their wheels purveying a watered-down version of what social media can really do, or be always a few steps behind the curve. 


Ultimately, we will get there. Until then, I will be following new developments. On Twitter. On my smartphone. Or wherever new technologies might lead...

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