First Principles: Before You Begin In Social Media

I received a call the other day from an organization struggling with their public reputation. "We're just getting slammed," they said. "Bloggers are being mean to us. How can we make them stop?"

My question was the obvious one: I wanted to know why the bloggers were being mean. "Well," came the answer, "they keep finding out about all the naughty things we do, and then they report on them."

I've been working with companies on their social media activities for some years now, and historically we've taken the straightforward, strategic approach. Start with clearly defined objectives, identifying how said objectives fit into the company strategy. Find out where your community is already congregating online. Determine how you can best contribute to that community and how those contributions can feed back into your objectives. Implement. Measure. Rinse. Repeat.

That traditional approach starts with the strategy question. But when it comes to social media, I've grown to realize there's a far more important question to ask, one that has become the fundamental starting point for any engagement: Is your company culturally ready for social media and, if not, what do we need to do to get it there?



See, traditional media doesn't require any kind of introspection. It requires crafting an appropriate one-way message, one that portrays the organization and its products in exactly the right persuasive light.

Social media, however, brings with it an almost unavoidable transparency, revealing to our community the flawed reality inherent in any company. It requires us to stop pretending we're perfect and focus instead on striving to be better.

The phone call continued: "OK, we get it, more transparency. So we should announce bad things ourselves before the bloggers write about them?"

Step in the right direction, yes. Solution, no. The idea behind airing dirty laundry is not to gain permission to leave it dirty. It is to accept that it is dirty so you can begin the process of cleaning it.

This is not a strategy question. It is a culture question. Does your company have a culture of defending the status quo, or of focusing on what can be done better? If the former, you will struggle at the first sign of conflict in the social media space. If the latter, your community is likely to support your evolution.

With traditional media, making your point is like having an argument on a TV show: the heroine delivers a witty and incisive remark, turns, and stalks away, leaving her adversary open-mouthed and speechless, devoid of comeback.

Social media, on the other hand, strips companies of the power to end the conversation at a point of their choosing. As Nestle found out, you don't get to engage as long as the relationship is going well and then close the door once things get hairy. Social media is more like a marriage: You have to work through the problems.

All this is not to suggest that your company must be perfect or perfectly enlightened before you should be allowed to create a Facebook Page. What it does mean, though, is that sooner or later we're going to have to take a good look at ourselves, and ask some hard questions. And the good news is that those questions allow us to begin the process of making that dirty laundry clean.

What's your experience with company culture and social media? Tell me about it in the comments or via @kcolbin.

Kaila's Spinning today as a sub for Joe Marchese, who will be back next week.

6 comments about "First Principles: Before You Begin In Social Media".
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  1. Rosanne Gain from Gain - Stovall, PR, May 25, 2010 at 1:22 p.m.

    "fundamental starting point for any engagement: Is your company culturally ready for social media and, if not, what do we need to do to get it there?"
    This is a great quote from a very insightful article. We have a client in the non-profit arena who is not yet ready for social media. This article will be placed in our tool kit to help us as we determine if and when they are ready for a two-way conversation with their target audiences.

  2. Jennifer Finger from KeenReader Inc., May 25, 2010 at 1:47 p.m.

    I think that since any company can end up mentioned on someone's blog, the management really needs to take a look at what's being said. They can't ignore it or just be dismissive of it, the way Mark Zuckerberg has been with comments about Facebook and its ever-changing privacy settings, to give an example.

    So pretty much any company needs to worry about social media implications and stay on top of them. Sometimes, yes, bloggers can be just snarking, but I think a big key to dealing with social media involves knowing how to separate the trolls from people who have legitimate grievances or other negative comments about what a company is doing, and knowing how to respond effectively.

  3. Randy Higgins from Anova Group, May 25, 2010 at 2:31 p.m.

    Thank you for the insight. In addition to transparency, there is another cultural barrier that I have run across with social media, particularly at larger companies. Many are culturally risk averse and therefore, have antiquated content approval processes (legal, consumer affairs, IT, etc.) that do not allow them to act in the real-time world of social media. Prior to undertaking any social media initiative, we always work with our clients to ensure they are ready to move and react at the speed required of the channel.

  4. David Hawthorne from HCI LearningWorks, May 25, 2010 at 3:02 p.m.

    Well, you've hit the nail on the head. I am tired of clients wanting to "use" social media. They don't get it. "Social Media uses you." You have to contribute... and all that you have to contribute has to be on the table. No dealing from the bottom of the deck. Organization accustomed to convention media "have something to sell." The only reason they are in the medium is to "sell" something (idea, product, service, opinion, whatever). If you don't want to play, don't get in the game.

    If you do, expect to win some, lose some and try to get better at it, until you win more than you lose. You have to be a "learner" not just a "player." The best poker players don't cheat.

  5. Ngoc T from Iowa, May 28, 2010 at 9:22 a.m.

    Concise, easy to follow, relevant topic, engaging style, valuable insight. Five for five. This is easily one of the best shorts written on this topic. Simply fantastic.

  6. Elena Parks, May 28, 2010 at 12:24 p.m.

    I think that what companies aren't thinking of when putting a social media strategy in place is the 'damage control' aspect of it. Nobody is perfect, and with information being so accessible today, companies need to be able to own up to mistakes or 'dirty laundry' and say 'ok, this is what we'll do to move on from it'. Excellent article!

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