Avoid Trial in the Court of Social Media: What You Should Think About Before Outsourcing

There have been several recent firestorms surrounding social media. Someone officially representing Home Depot posted a photo so insidious the company felt pressure to apologize to the NAACP. A PR executive got fired for mocking a global disease on Twitter. Shortly after, an in-flight wi-fi provider expressed remorse for using her plight to promote their services. A quick search for “social media disasters” will reveal groan-inducing stories to make you marvel at what passes for a good idea in the heat of the moment.

The case of Home Depot is especially interesting because when they apologized for the tweet, they also explained that an individual at an external agency was responsible for the post. As more agencies offer this service, it brings up important issues about these relationships and what it means manage relationships online.

Because of the rapid pace of conversations, social media has more urgency than most other services. It mimics real life. Hashtags take over entire conversations. It’s a living and breathing public forum. This means less time to evaluate and debate options, which can lead to missteps.

Not interested in the pressure, many organizations have tried to opt-out, but that is an enormous missed opportunity to influence the conversation. It is tempting to try, but it won’t always be possible to stick with neutral territory. Your brand has a distinctive point of view and that will often mean taking a stand of some kind.

With such a critical and volatile space continuing to permeate marketing and public relations, it’s best to be strategic and prepared for how to handle social media. Here are some issues to consider before paying someone else to manage your channels:

  • Auto vs. manual. People expect sincerity your social media. In general, no one likes robots and an automated response will be easy to spot and customers will call you out on it. These robots miss the power of social media: transformative and interactive experiences with your target audience. Faking responses or using bots will look out of touch and deceptive. If an agency is offering social media monitoring, what exactly will this involve? Who will be responding on behalf of your brand?
  • Crisis response. Customers are smart enough to know your organization will look like a jerk for not responding. They will use your social media channels to pressure you into responding fast. I cannot say it enough, this is a good thing! If it didn’t happen on your fan page, it would happen somewhere else and you wouldn’t even get the chance to respond. However, you don’t have the luxury of sleeping on it or deciding how to respond in a lengthy staff meeting. Create a guide for your social media professionals (either internal or external): if this happens, respond with this information.
  • Don’t waste effort trying to be funny – the risk always outweighs the laughter. More than anything else, focusing on how your brand makes people smile and creating content around that will help you avoid a faux pas. Align social media with your marketing objectives and aside from wishing everyone a happy Halloween, do not deviate from your strategy. My instinct is that someone working for Home Depot felt more pressure to go viral (which they did) than to talk about home improvements. That’s a highly emotional topic when approached thoughtfully (building swing sets for children, extreme Christmas decorations, setting the scene for good times on your outdoor deck, etc.). There’s lots of potential for meaningful and, yes, even humorous posts here.
  • Clearly articulate your corporate values. Make respect for all cultures and people a part of your strategy and include a clause in your agreement about avoiding posts that come at the expense of groups of people and their dignity. It won’t cover every eventually, but it will set the right tone.
  • Play an active role in evaluating ideas, especially in the beginning. Platforms like hootsuite allow people to view posts it in real time. Give your creative talent control while maintaining oversight. As the relationship with your social media rep grows, they will develop an organic understanding of the approach you want. Taking a completely hands-off approach from the beginning is a recipe for a surprise.
  • If someone crosses a line, apologize and explain if necessary. It’s easy to mildly offend lots of people. Just take a look at these competing posts about remembering Pearl Harbor. In one case, an organization shared a meaningful part of its founder’s life, a patriotic narrative that it now claims as part of its legacy. In the other post, well, it just looks like SpaghettiOs wants attention. With a quick apology, however, it was time to move on. Unlike Home Depot, this post did not come at anyone’s expense. AT&T experienced a similar hiccup. Because it t didn’t show the same lack of basic humanity and character as Home Depot’s or Justine Sacco’s, it was a a straightforward recovery.
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Because of its unique platforms, it can seem like social media is its own entity. When executed strategically, it works seamlessly with other channels. The messaging and brand should shine through all the likes, shares and links to communicate clearly. The photos and graphics should echo your core visual graphics.

However, social media does magnify all PR issues. Any individual who shows questionable judgment or off-color humor in at the office has the potential to taint your social media with those philosophies. Digital marketing reflects real life. Whether you hire an external agency or manage social media in-house, the brand has to own the mistakes.

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