Social media is death to dialogue (and public relations)

One of the great fallacies of social media is that it is a boon to dialogic communication (sic) and interactivity and, hence, public relations*. In actuality, it is characterised more by the viral compounding multiplication factor, which manifests itself through replicated sharing with minimal or no value adding.

Tsunami of fatuous social media information

This, essentially, defines social media as primarily a broadcast medium, rather than an interactive one. So instead of communicating WITH each other through social media, we are using it to communicate AT each other.

*Public relations cannot work unless there is dialogue embedded within it. Dialogue is fundamental to at least two key characteristics of PR. It provides the best possible means of:

  • understanding stakeholders’ positions on issues
  • manifesting empathy towards stakeholders (though of course behavioural change by the organisation illustrates the best sort of empathy-in-action!).

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So while social media should be a boon to enabling dialogue (and hence public relations) to be effectively implemented, it very often simply isn’t up to the task. Two reasons for social media evolving in this way could be:

  • the harnessing of social media by commercial interests as a means of marketing products and services (i.e. to sell stuff)
  • society’s predilection for using it as a means to brain dump inane chatter, thus clogging up the communication channel with so much junk people have, often, become inured to it as a credible means of gaining information and communicating WITH people.

Social media for cretinous commentary

It can be argued that simply by RTing ,sharing et al, online posted content is being injected with the sharer’s credibility and imprimatur, but that is still not the same as contributing to the dialogue. And it’s a very long bow indeed to pontificate that it’s remotely value-adding, either.

While we all are known to some degree for our position on certain issues, with this stance ostensibly casting a shadow or veil over the content which is being shared, without the value of explication this will rarely offer sufficient clarity on the sharer’s stance, especially to those who are more than one step of ‘separation’ from the person who originally e-articulated the content.

Social media is the lazy person’s means of making something known, too. A simple RTing means, ‘I don’t have to think much or add value as I’m letting the initial content do the intellectual heavy lifting’; I’ll just (hopefully) look smart through association. God knows I’ve been guilty of this myself often enough. And generally this just adds to the information noise out in the e-ther.

I raise my e-glass to the power of less!

Raillery as the missing e-ingredient

I say: forget the cursory upload or sharing of content which does not have value-adding integrated.

To echo the stupendously wonderful Robert Dessaix, we want raillery (light hearted criticism) to enliven the e-cosmos. Criticism can be negative, positive or neither – simply analytical and observational.

But raillery is analysis which makes you smile through its gentle teasing and play. I’d like to think it’s one of Australians’ better national characteristics.

Social media as Narcissus’s ‘mirror’

Another failure of social media is encapsulated in a further non-social media-specific observation of Dessaix’s, that of individuals within western civilisation’s tendency say what they think as a sort of “angry narcissism”, with people “locked within an endless loop of self- reflection”. E-narcissism anyone?

This is a good description of how social media is used as a mechanism through which tsunamis of fatuous, self absorbed information are paraded like trophies, when even to describe this information as the emperor’s new clothes is to overestimate its utility and resonance.
Dessaix classes this as “conversation avoidance”. Hardly the dialogic platform social media is meant to exemplify.
Dessaix has further implied, if not the death, then the traducing of the term ‘friendship’ by social media. Facebook, I cast the stone at thee. Facebook, the evil home of ‘friending’. where vague acquaintances are elevated to friends. The commoditisation of friendship.  Can social media go any lower?

Further, most social media-driven ‘additional’ commenting (hardly value-adding!) on the initial content is facile and/or solipsistic. Marginal, at best, from an interactivity and dialogue perspective.

Clearly, there will be resistance to some aspects of this social media rant! What are your thoughts? Have I underestimated the current value of social media to corporate communication/public relations? is social media more interactive than broadcast, as I define it to be in this post? Can you give examples to illustrate your point (which, clearly, I haven’t!)

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Does business exploit employees’ social media real estate?

Using personal social media profiles to promote content for businesses potentially means compromising, and diminishing, who you are as an individual human being – it can be dehumanising. This issue is likely to become an increasingly vexed one for not just professional marketers and public relations professionals, but for any employee of, and/or consultant to, an organisation.

Business pressuring employees for social media sharing

Is there anything wrong with a business asking its employees to use their personal social media real estate to promote a product, service or business? The easy answer is no, because it’s just asking. There is no need to actually undertake the social media sharing/commenting requested.

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But that ignores three factors:

  • Merely by asking, some people will feel pressured to undertake the social media sharing
  • Many people on social media tend to be fairly non-disciplined when it comes to sharing/liking/RTing etc, so the business is on to a ‘winner’ by asking its employees to undertake this activity at all
  • What if the organisation monitors what employees/consultants actually share and then use non-cooperation against the individual? Big brother stuff.

You think the Big Brother approach doesn’t happen? Seriously? If so, I think you’re being hopelessly romantic and/or naive. Even if it doesn’t happen very often, it remains an approach which a business can take if it wishes.

The moral dimension of Craig Pearce (me) asking for social media shares

I ask in my blog posts and on social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn for people to share my posts, hoping it increases readership and the perceived credibility of my blog and, by extension, myself. I do this for a number of reasons:

  • It’s a bit of sport/fun to see subscriber numbers to my blog increase and for social media shares to go up
  • It might lead to increased and better quality work opportunities
  • It helps raise awareness of what I like to think are interesting and valuable thoughts on PR, corporate communication and marketing
  • It will hopefully lead to greater engagement on the blog and get people adding value to thought leadership I have written.

So if I can ask for social media sharing to take place, why shouldn’t businesses?

It’s a good question. And I’m not sure if I have a good answer!

The morality of business asking for social media sharing

I tend to think of facebook as a purely personal platform. LinkedIn I think of as being purely professional. And Twitter is a bit of a mixed bag, but mainly professional.

The upshot of this being I think it fine for business to ask for shares on an employee’s LinkedIn platform, and also on Twitter, but not on facebook. This is a purely personal perspective and millions will probably disagree.

And a good reason for disagreeing is that we have, really, become promiscuous sharers on social media. For many people the line between keeping information personal on social media is about as non-existent as the line which exists regarding shouting out personal information on mobile phones in public places (but don’t get me started on that one…).

There are three approaches I think businesses should apply as a default when seeking employee shares on their social media real estate:

  • Make it a hard and fast written policy that no monitoring of employees sharing of business news/imperatives on social media platforms will be held against them, unless the sharing contains comment which compromises the organisation in some way or is unlawful
  • It should also be policy that a lack of social media sharing about the business will never be held against the employee
  • Be non-pushy in the asking of shares on employees’ social media platforms. I would be putting it something like this: ‘Please consider sharing news of XYZ on one of your social media platforms such as LinkedIn….etc’

And I would certainly be prioritising the asking of shares on business-oriented social media platforms, not personal/social-oriented ones, the reason for which seems self-evident.

Not least of which there is less risk of employees thinking the business is infringing in their personal space – which will impact on employee perceptions towards the business, how much they admire the business and, crucially, their productivity and how long they work at the business. Increased employee turnover is, in particular, a massive cost which a business does not want to increase.

Advantages for employees in business-driven social media sharing

In the context of a platform such as LinkedIn, I think there are a number of common sense advantages to employees agreeing to share news of their business on LinkedIn:

  • As LinkedIn is a very visible window into the history, attitude and ‘soul’ of you as a professional, sharing – and commenting positively – on an employer’s news indicates you are a supporter of the company you work for – this is, patently, going to be perceived as being a good thing
  • If the news is relevant to the employee’s actual professional line of work, it could help them learn something about the topic being discussed through other people’s comments and/or information sharing, thereby potentially becoming more adept at their profession.
  • By promoting an employer on LinkedIn, it will probably help in some way to the business increasing its brand equity and enhancing its reputation. This will contribute in some way to the longevity and potentially even income of the business, making it a more secure long term employer of the individual.

Personal choice and personal credibility on social media

At the end of the day, of course people have the right to choose what they do and don’t share on social media. What they share and how they comment on the shares tells us a lot about the sort of person they are.

Personally, I am mystified why people would want to share something related to fast food products, FMCG products or anything with an obvious and in-your-face commercial focus.

On the other hand, I totally get social media shares on activity related to the arts, culture, politics, social issues and sport. Yes, there are plenty of cultural and sport ‘products’ out there, so my delineation between these and FMCG, for instance, is a personal and, perhaps, spurious one!

What do you think about this discussion? Do you share news of your employer on social media? if so, which platforms do you think are appropriate to do this on? Where do you draw the line in platforms to use for business purposes and the kind of news you will share on your employer or other businesses on social media? Have you ever been offended or felt compromised by being asked by your employer to share news of it on social media?

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Social media: freedom or fiefdom for public relations?

Social media is an antidote to the nanny state, for young people in particular, offering them a freedom that they are increasingly being deprived of. With its virtually (sic) non-existent rules, ever-evolving ‘etiquettes’, yet-to-be-determined legal precedents and myriad of platforms – which offer opportunities for expression and showboating never known before – social media frontiers are being extended each passing moment.

Social media playground for PR

This is a view recently touched upon on by John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs in The Australian. No doubt it’s not the first time this observation has been made, but it’s one I found quite striking and worth exploring.

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The nanny state which Roskam bemoans has been extensively discussed. It is a state of being which is seeing freedoms curtailed for the sake of occupational health & safety. It is having its most extreme manifestation in Australia’s economy, where safety is a major factor in the rising cost of doing business in Australia (e.g. mining, oil & gas), frightening off investment dollars (and jobs) elsewhere.

For Roskam, the freedoms lost to Australian youth are frustrating, too. Examples include children not being allowed to play physical games at school, no matter how seemingly benign, or playgrounds only being permitted to be constructed using certain equipment and after extensive and expensive risk analysis has been undertaken.

An extension of this is the political correctness applied to situations such as children’s sport, whereby coaches of young children are chastised if they answer questions about a match’s score, rather than answering in an obfuscating way along the lines of, “The score doesn’t matter, it’s about participating and having fun.” (Of course this is true, but if the kid asks the question, as a kids’ sporting coach myself I think there is a safe middle ground here which is not condescending to the children.)

Social media as freedom

It’s hard not to agree with Roskam’s assertion that social media offers freedom, though perhaps there is worth in the observation, too, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

And this is not just a throwaway line, not in the context of social media, anyway. Because freedom means being able to act like an idiot, a bully and a saboteur, just as it means being able to behave in a manner useful to society and/or simply to have some harmless fun.

We could talk at length about the cloak of invisibility social media offers those who choose to go down this path. How many times have we heard of cyberbullies and/or those who make comments whilst not choosing to make their identity known, potentially causing all sorts of unhappiness, yet running from taking responsibility for what they have contributed to?

Is this the sort of freedom we want?

Yes, the same sort of thing can and does happen offline, too.  But offline doesn’t have the same viral, audience multiplication characteristics:

  • More people can learn of an opinion, accusation, rumour etc online than they can offline
  • Social proof – the credibility of numbers. An implication of this is that if a piece of information is shared often enough online, then by its sheer proliferation it is assumed it must be true, when clearly this isn’t necessarily the case.

It is true, also, that many online environments can have a moderating effect on information, calming the waters of outrageous pieces of supposed information (more like a piece of data, really).

And it is similarly true, and here we have a wonderful example of social media freedom, that the information posted online can be curated by those choosing to share it. This can mean adding further (perhaps qualifying) insights and opinion, scrutinising what is being shared and, ultimately, accelerating a dialogue on the topic in a much more expansive (if not necessarily in a more intelligent) manner than could have occurred offline.

So yes, social media does offer a unique sort of freedom to all of us. How society ends up using the freedom, well, only time will tell. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves!

Freedom at last: implications for communication/relationship management

For communicators, social media offers wonderful opportunities to share information, enhance reputations and build relationships. And it can help mitigate the impact of crises, through issue identification, conversation monitoring, information sharing and having 3rd party advocates assist in the application of social proof.

Of course, when it comes to crises, social media has made worse many an organisational crisis, too, due to the number of people who can very quickly pick up on a piece of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) and share it.

Another major challenge for communicators are the proliferation of social media platforms which can be utilised. And it’s not one size fits all. One piece of information articulated in the same way cannot simply be replicated across all platforms.

All this interaction requires not just strategic insights, technical skills and creativity, but increased budget.

The many opportunities for expression social media and digital offers creates further new challenges. Video, photos, illustrations, software which makes and distorts all of this, with text being either bastardised into new forms or iterations of language or being superseded completely by digital’s current darling, video .

It’s tempting to accuse still images of dumbing down communication, with infographics being one manifestation. But that would be to deny a powerfully large thing we call the visual arts. Still, you have to wonder that whilst, yes, a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes those ‘words’ may not make much sense.

Or, and here’s the killer, words may not be connected in a manner which the viewer is able to ‘decipher’ to give the words meaning.

Furthermore, the meaning audiences gain may not be the meaning intended. It is my belief words can be much more specific than images, both to capture the meaning and to customise the meaning in a manner more attuned to the individual’s ability and desire to decipher it.

Really, even at the best of times it’s hard to know to know whether social is a bane or a boost to professional communication. It’s certainly complicated it! And, as well all know, it ain’t going nowhere, so best we figure out excellent solutions and be ever open to a rapid evolution to the approaches we choose to take.

Where have you seen, or experienced, the impact which social media’s freedom characteristic has had on public relations or marketing? Where do you feel the freedom dimension is helpful or a hindrance to professional communication? Have you observed where the nanny state mindset is being applied to social media (apart from China!)?

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