Social media: friend or foe?

As I mentioned earlier this week, last night I attended the Social Media: Friend or Foe? event hosted by our Change & Internal Communications team here at Hill & Knowlton. This event represented a bit of a break in format for our recent events. Rather than the traditional expert presentation followed by a Q&A, our host and Head of Internal Communication, Scott McKenzie, challenged the audience to field two debate teams from amongst their number.

This was a great approach for a number of reasons, not least because it highlighted that there’s not really such a thing as a “social media expert” (one of the problems of a medium that changes exponentially while you’re asleep). In this context then, the challenge for our guests and attending H&K-ers was to coordinate either a Friend or Foe argument, and the results were particularly interesting given our debate teams.

From a crisis management perspective the outcome of the debate isn’t nearly as important as some of the observations the debate itself triggered. Some of the more poignant among these were:

  • As social media becomes more pervasive it also becomes less social. (this is similar to the old “alternative” music debate – if everyone’s playing “alternative”, doesn’t that just make it mainstream?)
  • As mobile technology continues its upward evolution it becomes a social media lifeline. How then does a company possibly enforce a social media ban amongst its workforce if they have their own mobile phones in the workplace?
  • When it comes to engaging with audiences via social media, you have to be brave because you cannot be selective. This was from our very own global Director of Marketing Technology, Niall Cook (or follow him on Twitter here).

For crisis managers then, the key take-away from the night was this: social media is here to stay. So deal with it.

This cold, hard truth has several important ramifications, which are not exactly new, but are definitely more pronounced with the rise of online networks. Here are three of the more confronting ones:

  • The “how” of a story supercedes the “what”. Relatively simple issues, the kind that used to be classed as “just the cost of doing business”, now take on a life of their own. All it takes is one connected individual to decide they don’t like the way your organisation has behaved, and it’s enough to start a landslide. Snowflakes and skiers have known this for years.
  • The relevance of social media to your primary target audience is irrelevant to your actual crisis. It used to be that if a special interest group took offence, you could rationalise your level of engagement on the basis of whether or not that special interest group had any bearing on your ability to continue doing business. Now, though, if that otherwise irrelevant interest group can stimulate significant attention in their own right, then to the world’s media that actually is a story. It may still have no bearing on what your original problem was…but by now, that no longer matters.
  • Yes, engaging with a social media-based crisis does reinforce a positive feedback loop. So, think carefully before you do it. This is a real sticking point in the crisis vs. digital communication debate because the pro-social media camp is very much singing the “two-way communication promotes transparency” hymn. Fact: that statement was just as true before the internet was invented. It was just harder to tell if you weren’t holding up your side of the deal.

The point then is that you don’t have to get on facebook/Twitter/foursquare/insert-your-preferred-platform-here in order to engage with your audience. So have a good, hard think about whether you even should. Absolutely, the odds are you should engage with your audience. But if they’ve created a space on a social network that’s akin to an old-fashioned lynch mob, why on Earth would you do it there? Be creative and find a better solution (do something completely out of the box – actually meet the leaders of the mob one-on-one, for a coffee and a chat).

It’s all pretty daunting stuff, and depending on which school of thought you subscribe to it will make the lives of crisis managers either infinitely more difficult, or somewhat less painful. And the reason for that is a simple one: how people respond to your corporate behaviour is well and truly beyond your control. So instead, we need to take a leaf out of our Internal Communications colleagues’ handbook, and focus our efforts instead on what our corporate behaviour actually is in the first instance.

In other words, do the right thing by people and chances are, they’ll do the right thing by you.

(For any readers who haven’t yet, you can also check out Scott’s Collective Conversation blog here)

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4 Comments
08

Dec
2009

Collective Conversation » Media Insights and Crisis Expertise » Blog Archive » Why Message Development is important

[...] time to time on this blog we talk about the importance of driving communication through organisational behaviour, and how this can be of great help to crisis managers because it gives you a solid base from which [...]

09

Dec
2009

Internal Communication Guy

To me, the web is social media in itself. It’s not Twitter, or Facebook. A personal website is a reflection of yourself and your thoughts. So in my book social media has been around since the days of Geocities.

What I have becoming a foe of is the mining of all this public data. Tags are becoming the litter on the streets of the internet.

10

Dec
2009

Grant Smith

Thanks Internal Comms Guy – sounds like we’re pretty much in agreement. If you’d like to see a video of the debate, you can visit Scott’s blog for the Vimeo link: http://blogs.hillandknowlton.com/scottmckenzie/

Thanks for reading!

23

Feb
2010

shipping

Hello! Your post (Collective Conversation » Media Insights and Crisis Expertise » Blog Archive » Social media: friend or foe?) does so well that I would like to translate it into French, publish on my french blog and link to you. You have something against it? Regards

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