Lessons in Social Media

Earlier this week an executive from a public relations firm made a minor faux pas via his Twitter feed. He had just flown in to meet with a client and, from what he says, had a very unpleasant encounter with a particularly rude member of the local service industry. Frustrated, he made a tweet which was directed at one person but was so vague that it could have been (and ultimately was) misinterpreted by SEVERAL employees of his client. An angry email was sent to the executive, the email got leaked and the blogosphere exploded.

As is the case with most Internet drama, the majority of the noise fell into one of two categories:

  1. Those that rabidly defended the executive and claimed that his right to free speech was being trampled upon by over-sensitive clods that clearly don’t “get” New Media
  2. Those that were incredibly offended that someone would dare say something negative about their home town

After reading a good portion of the chatter that surrounded this controversy, I collected my thoughts and would like to offer my summation.  Yes, the executive has a right to free speech and should feel free to exercise it as he sees fit.  However, initial reactions to the free speech / censorship issue usually end with the phrase, “If you are offended by it then maybe you SHOULDN’T READ IT!”  This argument presents a problem in this particular case because the executive is in the PR business.  The last thing that he would want anyone to do is to unsubscribe.

Another ironic twist to this tale is that the executive was meeting his client for the express purpose of teaching them how to use social media (like Twitter) for corporate communications to the public!  If this were a salesperson that had gone to visit the client then this would almost be a non-issue.  For someone that touts themselves as a digital media executive, this is a really big mistake.  It makes him look like any other person with a broadband connection and an opinion.

This does not mean that the executive is a bad person.  In my opinion, he should not be fired or dragged over hot coals or forced to endure countless hours of lolcats and rickrolling.  If anything, he should take this experience and incorporate it into his next PR plan for social media.  The bigger issue is that social media is still in it’s infancy and no one can claim to be an expert at understanding it.  Within the course of nine years, the Internet has provided us with LiveJournal, Friendster (admit it – you have already forgotten about Friendster, haven’t you?), MySpace, WordPress, Movable Type,  FaceBook and Twitter.  The way in which we use digital media to communicate is changing at such a rapid pace that any lessons learned are becoming obsolete.  What’s worse is that there is no real measuring stick with which we can accurately gauge expertise in the area of social media prowess.  Anyone can claim to be a social media guru and there is nothing that anyone can do to say otherwise.  As a matter of fact, I’m going to go on record right now and state that I am the leading expert in social media dynamics with relation to corporate branded multimedia synergistic paradigms! Go ahead – prove me wrong!

Things aren’t as hopeless as they seem.  As much as I have been disappointed with their service, I do have to give credit to Frank Eliason of Comcast.  He seemingly spends all day scouring the Twitterverse looking for unhappy Comcast customers and doing what he can to assist them with their issues.  Keep in mind that this is ALL done in the public eye.  This is a perfect example of a company that “gets” social media.  Consumers have grown tired of dealing with faceless, souless corporations and corporations are starting to realize that.  Many local news outlets have also adopted Twitter to publish headlines and links to the online versions of their stories.  I have a feeling that the ability to pick up and utilize these new technologies will be the difference between news outlets that survive and those that no longer end up lining bird cages.  It should not be too difficult as most newpaper headlines will fit nicely within Twitter’s defined limits.

Jorge Luis Borges, the master of the short story, once said words to the effect that novelists were nothing more than morons that could not tell their stories in short form.  He believed that any story worth telling could easily fit within 100 pages – any more than that was clutter.  He would have LOVED Twitter.  The executive that made the vague tweet should take a note of this – on Twitter, you only have 140 characters.  That is not nearly enough space to explain the context of a message.  If the idea is not communicated EXACTLY, people will write around it in their minds.  This can lead to a compromised message, which is worse than no message at all.

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