Why it’s essential to keep the ‘social’ in social media

Corporate shilling can undermine credibility and alienate your audience.

Corporate shilling can undermine credibility and alienate your audience

My old mentor, David Berlo, used to say “selling is lying when you’re doing it to a teammate.”

His point goes to the heart of a troubling trend emerging from the business world’s current fascination — and struggle — with social media. We’re seeing an unsavory mandate coming from corner offices in companies nationwide. Now that they have this cool tool called a “blog,” they want to use it to promote corporate messages alongside its intended use as a conversation tool for building relationships.

As blogging experts know, of course, once an organization starts down that path, credibility goes down the toilet. Some companies go so far as to use their blogs for posting news releases. You can imagine the reaction from bloggers to that kind of promotional intrusion?

You might as well be wearing a neon sign flashing: Propaganda!

So what’s a communicator to do?

It’s all about conversation

Maybe we can make some inroads by reminding executives of the good old days when one of the main forms of “social media” was — consumer affairs. What? Consumer affairs? What’s that got to do with social media?

Some years back, when I headed up corporate communications at the international food giant, Pet Inc., consumer affairs was one of the departments that reported to me. We had about a half-dozen people who spent their days either answering letters or talking with people on the phone — all different types on lots of different topics.

But all those people had one thing in common. They wanted someone to talk with them … to hear their stories and deal with their issues. They certainly did NOT want someone to sell them the company line. We worked hard with our consumer affairs specialists on how to have conversations with people — and we steered them away from spouting corporate propaganda.

Resist the temptation for promotion

Of course, there’s one big difference between that kind of socializing with stakeholders and what’s happening in the blogosphere.

Today it’s not just one-on-one with a few hundred or even a few thousand people a year by phone and snail mail. It’s about connecting with potentially millions of people — in a matter of days or even hours and minutes.

And therein lies the rub. The allure to violate the implicit social media code to converse rather than promote is just too tempting to resist for many promotionally minded managers.

It’s a classic case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. They’re going to exploit social media until nothing is left of their credibility but a pile of ruffled feathers. So remember these truths:

1. Only the technology for social media is new, not the concept.
2. If you use it for promotion or propaganda, you do so at your peril.

Valiant communicators may have to absorb some blows for the cause, but those who stand up against the temptation to abuse social media will avoid the trap of “lying to your teammates” — inside and out.

Les Landes is president of Landes & Associates, experts at aligning marketing communications and employee engagement. He is also the author of the Inside Out Blog and E-Column, which focuses on tips and trends for creating alignment in organizations.


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