Categories: Crisis management / CSR reality check / Media issues

26 January 2010


How organisations can survive the Tweet-sphere

Manchester United and Manchester City have advised their players against using social media accounts. It would seem the players have accepted the advice. The WSJ has taken a similar stance on SM. There are serious issues here to explore.

In the past footballers, like most employees, were not allowed to issue press releases, but Twitter and Facebook can easily amount to doing just that. Their bosses are nervous, and rightly so. Footballers are, after all, mostly only of interest because of their association with the game and a particular club. So every public utterance they make and the way they behave becomes of concern to the football companies.

The same goes for the likes of Kate Moss, Tiger Woods as representatives of their sponsors – just as it does for Jonathan Ross and John Humphrys as voices of their employer, the BBC. (With Ross the thing is complicated by his being not merely a freelance, but also a corporate sub-contractor.)

However, there’s distinction between Tweeting as an individual and Tweeting as someone who is clearly identified with an entity. The question is maybe this: should entities allow their members to Tweet about the entity but not about the wider world. Or is it, weirdly, vice versa?

Well, one wonders whether the wannabe editor of The Independent Rod Liddle now regrets writing on Millwall Online fan site that it was:

“Fcking outrageous that you can’t smoke in Auschwitz. I had to sneak round the back of the gas chambers for a crafty snout. Also, I wasn’t convinced by the newish Auschwitz Burger Bar and Grill.”

I’m sure that Amanda Knox wishes she’d never been described as Foxy Knoxy on a social media site, and then gone on to build on that reputation, if only for fun.

Perhaps that explains why one of the fastest-growing social media services is, which allows you to watch as your online history and friendships are shredded.

The reality is dawning, I believe, that the web is not a place to abandon inhibition. It is a place that should be engaged with confidence, but with the knowledge that everything is public, transparent and potentially damaging. Indeed, the new media have not overthrown (actually they have reinforced) old wisdom about reserve and caution.

Firms need to be able to say that they have a right to expect loyalty, up to a point. Individuals have a right to assert that they have a right to “voice”, up to a point. How can we get too cross when we find even footballers want to be articulate?

Well, one moderating influence might be for organisations to caution their staff that they’ll have to live with what they say: Tweets are horribly permanent. Best to be sensible, then.

Frankly, I suspect that organisations and their PRs will approach these issues very variously.

The best hope may be not to control what your people say so much as to get them to make it clear when they are speaking as individuals and when as representatives of the corporation. Indeed, an organisation should at least insist that their employees make it clear when they are not being “official”.

That’s one reason why, in contrast to the likes of Neville Hobson, I argue that corporate utterance is collegiate, not personal. If anyone wants the corporate view, they’ll need to log-in and get the official line or stick in the SM world but listen to people licensed and badged as corporate. The individual can say “I”, but only the PR or the manager can say “we”.

It’s easy – perhaps too easy – for some organisations to claim security is a problem. For instance, the US Marine Corps has banned all social media usage on its networks for security reasons, while allowing soldiers to continue to use them at home. I can’t judge the merit of the decision of the brass, but I recognise that firms are often paranoid about criticism and may attempt to silence their employees under a cloak of commercial confidentiality. The tension here is natural and sometimes healthy, as it was with Pfizer’s whistle-blowing saga.

An assessment of risk should determine the degree to which individuals are left free to exercise their judgment when it comes to using social media, or whether they will be restrained by bans on this or that topic or using this or that channel.

The case for corporate censorship is particularly strong in instances in which the distinction between “we” and “I” is difficult to separate in the public mind, and when the “I” helps calibrate the brand’s value. But censorship, whether corporate or self, will often make sense.

There are some big general points to make.

1. Companies never really could control what people said about them, and certainly can’t now. But for as long as they’re being talked about (bigged-up, dissed, or whatever) at least they are the subject of interest, and what they say is of interest. They’ve just got to be better and better at their end.

2. But to do so they need to be more strategic and approach messages from an evidence-based, grown-up, real-world position to win or retain credibility. They need to tie communication to business goals online and offline, and that requires a strong strategy backed by clear tactics in the face of chaos.

3. So with social media just like old media, if you are not proactive you let someone else define your brand, which was always the case, but only more so with SM etc.

The refractions, perceptions, versions and channels through which the world perceives you are as various as there are people looking and talking about you, and are growing all the time. Whilst you – the entity – can’t be static and rock-like, you should at least aim to be considered, serious, adult and stable. That’s surely the best way to earn respect and see off  – or even gradually respond to – the gales of opinion and gossip swirling around.

The trick for PRs is to anchor our communication in a solid reality and to get the message out to wherever audiences are. (But that shouldn’t stop us being adult just because we’re speaking with young people on our employer’s behalf.)

Everything else will come out in the wash.

Hence, the less we as PRs can control the perceptions of employees or customers on SM, or anywhere else, the more we’d better be good at managing and communicating the underlying realities to a wider audience. As ever, our messages need to be heard by as many of the disinterested or the uninterested as possible. All the people who aren’t talking (or even thinking) about our employers or clients matter as much as the tiny number who are making their life bloody.

3 responses to “How organisations can survive the Tweet-sphere”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    Great summation of the problems (and opportunities) facing organisations as SM becomes more and more part of life. It is easy for organisations to have policies in place that restrict SM use “on the job” – which I’ve always felt was much the same as prohibiting use of company postage, phone etc whilst at work. But one of the challenges today (especially for PR practitioners, execs and others who are more closely linked to the brand) is when the private and personal overlap. Are such people every “off duty” – and can their private and “corporate” utterances be so easily separated?

    We also have the emerging challenge that the next generation coming into the workplace will have been involved in SM from such a young age that their online personas will be long established and need to be portable across their careers.

    Will it really be possible – or even advisable – to need to destroy and reinvent ourselves everytime we change jobs?

    It would be great to think we can all live honorable online lives, but won’t the truth be that online will reflect the fact that everyone has a skeleton or two somewhere?

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by roman and paulseaman, paulseaman. paulseaman said: On my PR blog: How organisations can survive the Tweet-sphere […]

  3. […] PR Guru, Paul Seaman, outlined a few tips for organisations and how to “survive the Tweet-sphere”. In his blog he discusses the need to carefully look at the use of “we” and […]