The ABCs of Social Media: Authenticity, Boldness and Credibility

The globalization of information and the increasing influence and importance of social media and other nontraditional media as powerful sources of information are combining to change the ways in which companies and organizations must communicate with their stakeholders if they are to be effective and have credibility. While many companies fear the free-flowing nature of these communication vehicles and are reluctant to engage them, others are finding that they can be powerful tools to tell the organization’s message, engaging multiple stakeholders in a way that actually enhances reputation and brand value.

Whether you choose to join the conversation or not, it is happening. The question really is, do you prefer it to go on with or without you?

One of the main reasons companies fear social media is they’re afraid that it means ceding control of their images and brands. But, in point of fact, the idea that one ever really has control is illusory. No slick marketing, advertising or public relations effort has ever had the same impact on public perception as employees or customers describing their personal experiences. Multimillion dollar ad campaigns can be undone with one single act, as BP discovered when the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe put in sharp contrast efforts to position itself as a clean, environmentally responsible, alternative energy company.

After months of unsatisfactory conversations with customer service representatives for United Airlines, Canadian singer/songwriter Dave Carroll found a creative outlet for his frustration and released a "United Breaks Guitars" song and video on YouTube. By December 2009, Time magazine named the ditty as No. 7 on its list of the Top 10 viral videos of year. By that time the video had received over 9 million hits.

The problem for United was not the existence of the video, or the damaged guitar in question. The problem for United was the fact that, rather than complaining to his limited circle of friends about the problem, Carroll found a wider audience and platform for a message that resonated with a public tired of feeling helpless in the face of frustrations with air travel and customer service representatives.

The problem is not when someone uses social media to be critical—the real problem is that companies often do not want to face the reality that social media has exposed and fail to do so before it has spread to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people.

United eventually used this experience to revise its customer service training and practices. The Internet saved United the time and trouble of conducting focus groups exploring its customers’ experiences. It also cost them in reputation and, perhaps, customers. In that respect, the Internet can serve as an early warning system when things go awry—but only if you’re listening.

The Key to Credibility: Authenticity of Voice and Message

Authenticity is critical because the Internet is a wide-open platform, giving equal opportunity to all. The same Internet that showed the world the price that Iranians were paying for free elections by sharing the heartbreaking video of the tragic and senseless death of teenage protestor Neda Agha-Soltan with the world also provides a platform to wild conspiracy claims about U.S. government complicity in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to President Obama’s alleged ineligibility to be president due to specious claims that he was born outside the United States.

Despite the fact that people joke about the veracity of information on the Internet, it still has credibility. Sites like Wikipedia have demonstrated that self-policing by an almost infinite number of contributors can result in incredible accuracy. Today information from social media—including blogs  social media networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter - is considered more credible than (obvious) marketing messages, including corporate websites.

It is best to recall that traditional media, with which organizations have learned to be comfortable, are also not as assiduous as they should be when it comes to fact checking. While some blame can be placed on the Internet and bloggers (who served as the source for the edited video that resulted in the misguided firing of the Department of Agriculture’s Shirley Sherrod), it was the Internet forums and blogs that exposed CBS News’ failure to authenticate documents purporting to call into question then President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard.

Police to Guide, Not Enforce

The desire to control and efforts to do so can often detract from the real business at hand. Rather than accepting the opportunity that social media offers as an effective feedback mechanism that can alert them to potential problems and vulnerabilities, some companies go beyond non-participation and engage in misguided attempts to stop the conversations that they don’t appreciate.

In June 2010, just as the first oil began washing ashore in Pensacola, Fla., BP spent time and resources trying to stifle the satirical Twitter account @BPGlobalPR from sending sarcastic messages. Rather than spending time trying to shut down the parody tweets, the oil giant could have done far more to protect its image if it had done a better job containing the gushing oil well (and its own statements such as claims that the oil plume existed only “in very minute quantities") that were not only fueling the comments, but also giving them a receptive audience.

Social media provides a forum and community where comments about companies and organizations are shared much as they would be during regular face-to-face interactions. People share their experiences, both positive and negative, just as they would if they were to meet over coffee, a backyard fence or in line at the supermarket. Companies have never tried to prevent those interactions.

Trust and Empower Employees

Employers often give out logoed company apparel without concern about what employees might say while wearing the shirts, and yet companies often seek to prevent their own employees from engaging in social media activities, or regulate what employees say. This is a missed opportunity because an empowered, satisfied and engaged workforce is a strong asset that can—and should—be leveraged.

If your employees have resorted to complaining about you on the Internet, chances are good they don’t think that their concerns are being heard through mechanisms at work.

Contrast this with the image and story of Southwest Airlines, where employee/owners are recognized for their role as brand ambassadors. Within the FAA guidelines they are free to modify staid safety announcements in a manner that not only keeps them engaged, it increases the effectiveness of the announcements as passengers pay more attention to the non-rote patter which now serves to combat rather than contribute to boredom.

A values-based company that empowers, trusts and listens to its stakeholders (including employees and customers) and conducts its business in accordance with its articulated values (safety, respect, trust, teamwork, quality) has little to fear and much to gain from social media. Even when anomalies occur, the reputational capital that the company has earned through the way it conducts its business will serve as a platform for stakeholder loyalty. After all, social media is a multi-person dialogue. If most participants in the conversation view you favorably and are empowered and passionate about your company, the few detractors will not find a receptive audience to their messages.

It's a Social World—Start Living in It

• The conversation is happening, and will continue, whether or not you choose to participate.

• Social media offers a window on how your actions are being perceived by the public. It can be an effective early warning system, but only if you’re listening.

• The Internet is neither benevolent nor malicious—it is an open forum for people to express themselves. What people say about you is an outgrowth of how they feel about their interaction with you and your company.

• Your employees can be your greatest asset to share and spread truthful and positive information about your company.

—Other than the matter of scale, there is no difference between what your employees are saying about you on Twitter and Facebook and what they are telling their friends and neighbors every day.
—If they’re saying negative things, your problem is not social media and won’t be solved by attempting to prevent them from expressing themselves.

• Aligning your company actions with a culture based on the principles of corporate responsibility (ethics, integrity, environmental stewardship, etc.) is the best way to protect and enhance your image.

—Because issues incite emotion, the Internet (blogs, social networking sites, etc.) are natural places for people to share their thoughts and feelings and to find an audience.

John Friedman is senior director of PR for Sodexo Inc. and has more than 20 years' experience in internal and external communications and a decade in corporate responsibility and sustainability. He is also a co-founder and serves on the board of directors for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington. Twitter: @JohnFriedman email: