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Dos and don’ts for launching a social media presence

What is “social media” actually? Is it a new concept? Is it a new term? Or is it something much simpler than that, something that we can all explain? We are all social. We are born to be social and even the sociopaths, given their antisocial behaviour, are social.

It is shocking, isn’t it? Why? Because although the sociopaths display the opposite of what the society considers “normal behaviour”, they react or, better said, interact with the society by opposing its norms and values.

Anything that elicits interaction on human level is social, whether we approve of it or not. Anything that triggers an emotion – good or bad – is social because it makes us feel, think, question.

If we are to divide the users of social media in three general categories, these would be:

  • Information / thread generators, i.e. authors
  • Information consumers, i.e. followers
  • Information analysts, i.e. observers

In order to effectively and efficiently use the traditional and modern PR tools and methods available no organisation should confound between these three distinct categories because they have very few things in common and these are just:

  • the interest for the organisation
  • the use of that online platform

Let’s begin with an analysis of the Authors. First of all, speaking strictly from an organisational engagement point of view, the authors write to:

  • convey a message (core values and principles, latest updates, organisational changes)
  • show the organisation’s presence online (we have posted a message on Twitter / Facebook etc., therefore we are “social” and “interactive”)
  • elicit the followers’ “like” (if you want us to send you a free sample of our product, “like us” on Facebook)
  • engage with their market niche and “communicate”

For those of us working in PR, conveying a message and engaging with one’s organisation market niche are an absolute “must” in today’s society. However, what your organisation may wish to consider when embarking on the route of using social media as part of your PR engagement, are the other two points mentioned above: the online presence and the forced “like”.

Posting a message on Twitter and having many followers does not necessarily imply engagement unless your organisation ACTS and REACTS according to the wishes and suggestions of those with whom you are engaging, i.e. your followers. A clear validation of this argument can be found on @VinceSkolny’s blog- he argued  that he doesn’t ignore people who tweet at him and follows back people with whom he has engaged in conversations. Said differently, he follows people with whom he is building a relationship.

Likewise, offering a “free sample” or a “chance” to win one of your latest products is by no means a realistic and true measure of your social media impact.

Why would your organisation think that the public needs to be nudged in the right direction? Have you noticed that since your last offer of a “freebie” went live, the number of “likes” has dramatically increased? The increase is not due to your organisation being an ethical or responsible one, nor due to the fact that your core values and the way you conduct your business is appreciated by your market segment but simply because you are offering something for FREE and if all it takes to get that free sample is the click of button, why shouldn’t everybody “LIKE” your organisation?

The FOLLOWERS can be generally divided in two categories:

  • those who follow you, as an organisation, because they are interested in what you have to say, and
  • those who follow you because someone else does it and they wish to follow suit

Those who have a true interest in your organisation can be considered your true “fans”. Although their interest may be not pure at heart (some may follow your organisation, for example, to see what jobs may become available or to check what you, their competition, are doing) they are a constant presence out there, in the virtual medium and you should constantly engage them and seek their buy-in or input into the conversations you create.

A brilliant example of true social media engagement is that of @WeAreResource – they do not push messages, they do not do hard core advertisement of their services but they make all their followers feel valued and engaged:

And then we have those who follow you because it is fashionable, trendy, because one of their friends follows you or simply because it shows them – in case someone checks their “sociability” level – as being highly “social”.

This type of followers exhibits what is called in behavioural and cognitive sciences “pack behaviour” – they follow the “leader”, i.e. the person(s) they look up to or, in other words, the one(s) who follow(s) you. Is their engagement with your organisation, therefore, genuine? No, it isn’t. Would they be instrumental in case your organisation faces a change / crisis / loss of reputation? No, they wouldn’t unless the leader is – and then, they will follow.

Arthur Snell, a former British Diplomat and currently the Managing Director of Protection Group International has recently told CIPR’s Foresight Panel the following: “social media is overrated and I’m not aware of any significant business opportunity that has arisen from it. I find it interesting that any company in the western world has a Twitter handle – and I’m not aware of anyone looking for good professional services on Twitter.”

A category that merits a lot of care and attention is that of the OBSERVERS. What do they do?

The observers simply observe and I am one of them, too. Why do they just observe and not interact? Some of the reasons are:

  • they do not seek social “approval” or endorsement (journalists, competition)
  • they simply want to use what’s good in terms of your social engagement and make it their own or
  • they analyse the level and the quality of your social engagement, learn from your mistakes and “how not to” do it and make sure they don’t follow suit.

Every organisation looking to affect a real engagement with their public via social media, and not only, should have its own “observers”. Some companies do and the actual terminology for their specialism is “Business Intelligence”.

This special category is not influenced by your organisation’s perceived or subliminal messages and the reason for that is simple: when it comes to what YOU have to say and what’s important to YOU as an organisation, they simply don’t care. Why don’t they care? Because they can’t afford to lose objectivity – and “caring” implies subjectivity. If they are subjective, then they will no longer be effective at their jobs!

Furthermore, the social media becomes a rather dangerous advertorial platform in the case of disgruntled employees / volunteers / consumers. If your organisation is truly intending to advertise itself and engage with its publics, then you’d better be prepared for the bad because the “good” needs no special preparation. In this respect, any organisation’s “official” social media communication should be designed, monitored, administered and answered – should any inquiries emerge – by a single designated person or by a group of designated persons having the same responsibility, disseminating the same message, working in the same department and having the same supervisor / manager.

The main reasons for doing so are:

  • similarity of style and consistency
  • use of the same idioms and language
  • much higher awareness of what has been said vs. what needs to be said as response
  • who, in the organisation’s structure, would be better to provide an answer to any “social” query or issue that may arise
  • familiarity with the community of “followers” as well the “followers’” familiarity with this/these person(s), having built a “social” rapport

Language and grammar accuracy play a significant role in portraying to the wider public an image of seriousness, professionalism, maturity and real engagement. Hence, all texts intended to be posted on one of the social media platforms should be, preferably, checked beforehand for grammar and spelling.

After all, your organisation needs to look its best no matter how and in which manner you wish to communicate!

When your Communication / CSR / PR Department puts together a presentation for the Board or a conference, they just don’t throw words at it and badly used language like, for example, “CU2”! They would be preparing for them, making sure they look impeccable and that they bring out the best possible image for the business!

To this end, social media is no different and its users are, like it or not, also your STAKEHOLDERS – they should be as important to you as those in your general mailing list or your shareholders! Remember that although these “followers” may not be ascribed a certain financial value and nor can they actually represent a cold “profit margin”, they can be highly influential!

The followers of any organisation on a social network, although seemingly harmless and friendly, may also become its biggest critics and a certain manner of communication should be enforced – a polite, warm and sociable one – with no room for familiarity. Why? Because although “engagement” implies a real dialogue, there are written and unwritten rules of conduct that should never be crossed: you wouldn’t address a Government representative or one of your shareholders with “Hey, yo! What’s up?” would you?

Although we are all sociable, friendly and nice to one another, when one makes an extra effort and goes a little further than what it is “socially endorsed and accepted”, one can certainly stand out from the crowd!

To stand out from the crowd and make an impact on the very noisy and crowded social networks where every business under the moon and the sun is trying to build a portfolio of brand ambassadors, you would need to start treating your social media followers as real people and not measure them as the number of “likes” or “followers”.

If someone follows you home, this may not mean that such person has the best of intentions, does it? And not every “I like you” that we may hear on a daily basis from a personal standpoint actually means that we are really liked, does it?

Another HUGE mistake that is constantly made on-line by organisations’ “tweeting staff” is that such staff makes the line between the company’s social media accounts and one’s personal social media profile almost invisible.

If a person is known as being the author of the “posts” or as being a high-profile representative in that organisation then we, as mere social media users, would automatically assume that it is the organisation’s “voice”, wouldn’t we?

The messages your business shares on social media networks should be identical – in essence and meaning – with the messages that can be found on your organisation’s website, those posted on your blog, those included in video materials and those that will be disseminated via printed materials or e-mail correspondence.

The reason for doing so is strictly related to consistency: same message, same idea, same drivers, same values and the same purpose. Many organisations lose either the focus or the consistency of their message, sending mixed signals in the ether and, thus, either confusing or estranging their “followers”.

The social media updates / communication should occur only when events / new information / news occur and one should never feel “obliged” to post something on-line on a daily basis.

There is, already, an over-saturation of the social media and there will be a time when the basic principles of human attraction and psychology will kick in: “How is this relevant to me?”, “I’m not even going to bother reading it now… I’ve got three tweets from them today so far” etc…

As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, there are organisations which use social media for truly gauging an opinion and organisations which use it as another external communication channel. If the former version applies to your organisation, make sure that your posts / tweets are absolutely impeccable, that is:

  • they are true
  • they can be understood (very little, preferably no technical / specialised terminology)
  • there is always someone available to come back with further information if needed urgently
  • they are not offensive
  • they are professionally written
  • they reflect your organisation’s communication style
  • the author has no personal input whatsoever in the communication thread

If for your organisation – like for many others – social networks are too “dangerous” to directly engage with and you simply use them as one-way asymmetrical communication (that is you don’t allow for any comments / feedback) belonging to your wider external communication plan, then everything you have on social media platforms should be found in any other virtual information platforms of your organisation: website, blog etc.

If such information cannot be verified or, at least, found in another reference, then you create confusion and mistrust among your followers. They have no method of interacting with you or telling you: “there’s something wrong with this”. If you treat them like monkeys, you get peanuts! Remember: although people may willingly accept to be nudged in one direction or another, they never like to be treated as decorations or numbers on a web page.

Most of all, remember that there is no “one size fits all” – your social media strategy depends, first and foremost, on the overarching strategy of your business. There is a series of questions you need to ask before you finalise your strategy and put together its corresponding action/tactical plan.

Regardless of the strategy you’ll choose, there is one very, very important thing you need to always keep in mind and constantly remind your team/manager/client: as @wadds rightly said, SOCIAL MEDIA IS A CONVERSATION.

This post is dedicated to Rachael Coombes.

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Founding Chartered PR Practitioner, CIPR Board member (2018), former UK Government Communication Services and Institute of Directors mentor, published author and university lecturer, Ella has almost 20 years of high level government and international organisations experience in corporate reputation, leadership and crisis management, across business disciplines and governments, including investment markets, lender organisations, national and international media, NGOs and affected communities. She is a 2014 Service Award Winner of the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Assessor of CIPR's Chartered Scheme, an elected member of the CIPR Council (2017-2018), Founder of CIPR’s Energy Leadership Platform, former Chair of CIPR’s Foresight Panel and a Fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management. She handled some of the most prominent international crisis of recent times, she developed the Leadership Development Programme for SPE’s MENA young engineers and she has also been an adviser to several governments on their national branding strategies. Her list of clients includes McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Total, BP, Shell, Centrica, KazTransOil, Averda, The World Bank, Private Investment Development Group, the European Commission, the European Bank For Reconstruction and Development and many others. She is also Robert Gordon University's Lead Trainer for the Crisis Communication Diploma (CIPR Specialist Diploma).

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