A Lesson in Social Media: Turn Off the Robo-Tweets During Tragedy

You can forgive us Americans if our nerves were a bit raw yesterday. An iconic sporting event turned into another senseless tragedy when two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line.

So, as people turned to social media to get updates from news organizations, to console each other and even to track down friends and family who were near the scene, very few were in the mood to get run-of-the-mill marketing pitches in their Twitter streams — especially from a widely followed social media guru.

That’s what happened, though, as Guy Kawasaki asked his 1.2 million followers, “Ready to get your writer’s edge?” and then linked them to the sign-up page for one of his upcoming events. Kawasaki bills himself as the “former chief evangelist of Apple” and now is an independent social media consultant.

Many of his followers were incensed. Clearly, the spam that continued from his feed as news spread about the deadly blast was auto-generated. But as a number of people pointed out, he could have — and should have — cut the damn thing off for a while.

Soon, it became apparent that Kawasaki himself was back at the controls, but it didn’t help. Rather than admit appearing insensitive — even if due to a technological miscue — Kawasaki was defensive and arrogant. “Loving how people with less than 1,500 followers are telling me how to tweet.”


The outcry only grew louder, and deservedly so. “Because that is a measure of knowledge??” tweeted one follower. “It’s nice to see that having a million followers does not guarantee a person will have any sense of humanity, tact or humility,” posted another.

The lessons here should be obvious, but for the record:

  • Technology is great, but it still requires a human touch. There are some decisions a computer just can’t make.
  • Social media is about building relationships. You can’t build relationships with a machine.
  • Part of building relationships is not coming off as an insensitive jerk at a time when your audience calls out what it deems to be offensive behavior.
  • Sheer number of followers alone does not make you an expert or automatically confer good judgment.
  • There still seems to be a mystical aura around social media, even after several years of it becoming part of the business communication mainstream. This is propagated in part by self-proclaimed experts in the field. But really, the principles governing social media are essentially the same as any other vehicle, including: Build and maintain relationships. Be transparent. Treat your audience with respect.

Want to Quash the Rumor Mill? How About Joining the Conversation?

The age-old employee communication challenge for organizations has been how to contain the employee rumor mill. It’s an issue that predates formal employee communication programs and it’s even more vexing with the prevalence of social media.

These days, instead of gathering around the water cooler or hitting the local bar to gripe about their bosses or workplaces, employees often take to Facebook or Twitter, which of course gives greater reach to those complaints. Employees can do a lot more damage to organizations by hitting “send” than they ever could do over a beer.

As a result, many organizations have created social media policies that seek to restrict what employees say about them in social media. That seemed to put a little muscle behind employers’ expectations of their employees’ online activities. However, the National Labor Relations Board recently ruled that there is a limit to which organizations can restrict employees’ free speech. (Hat tip to Les Potter, integrated marketing communications instructor at Towson University, who blogged about this issue at More With Les.)

According to The New York Times, which covered the rulings, the NLRB “says workers have a right to discuss work conditions freely and without fear of retribution, whether the discussion takes place at the office or on Facebook. … ‘Many view social media as the new water cooler,’ said Mark G. Pearce, the board’s chairman, noting that federal law has long protected the right of employees to discuss work-related matters. ‘All we’re doing is applying traditional rules to a new technology.'”

Smart companies have learned that in order to rein in the wild-west atmosphere of social media, it’s important to engage with consumers and members of the news media covering their industries and organizations. However, it seems fewer companies have discovered how to engage with employees via social media. I’ve heard of some companies that try to do so, even creating Facebook groups where employees can share information and knowledge. But that’s still company-sanctioned media (like the newsletters and intranets of days gone by). What about engaging employees where they are? That would be risky, for sure, but could also go a long way toward taking some steam out of the rumor mill.

When it comes to the principles of effective employee communications, I’ve always believed there’s not a lot new under the sun. Communication should be two-way and symmetrical, meaning both the organization’s leaders and employees can initiate it. It should be open and transparent and it should focus on helping employees engage in the business. But when it comes to best practices, we still have a long way to go. Engaging with employees where they are — online — just might be the brave new world.


4 Reasons Big Bird is Still Cool After All These Years

Who would have thought that the “Saturday Night Live” performer getting the most laughs this week would be Big Bird?

But there he was, all 8 feet of his yellow plumage, seated next to “Weekend Update” segment host Seth Myers, yawning because he was up way past his 7 p.m. bedtime and nearly stealing the show from guest host Daniel Craig.

Big Bird suddenly became the talk of the U.S. presidential campaign last week after Republican Mitt Romney suggested withholding federal support for public broadcasting. Romney promised he had nothing against Big Bird, but the damage was done. The next day, from Sesame Street’s Twitter account, Big Bird tweeted, “My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?”

Big Bird was retweeted more than 12,800 times and has been the talk of social media and news programs ever since.

How is it that a puppet from a children’s show manages to remain so cool and so relevant — not with kids, but with grownups — after more than 40 years? The answers provide some good lessons for brands everywhere.

  1. Stay true to the brand. Big Bird doesn’t try to be something he’s not. He, like all the Muppets from “Sesame Street,” remain in character — and more important, true to their characters — no matter what situation they’re thrown into. It would have been tempting for Carroll Spinney, the main inside the bird, to knock off a few double entendres or attempt some “grown-up” humor, given the setting. Instead, he kept it clean: “I’m a bird! Tweeting is how we talk!”
  2. Know your audience. Big Bird’s appearance on “SNL” wasn’t geared to children, most of whom share a bedtime closer to his. He knew his audience was the parents of those kids, many of whom grew up watching him on “Sesame Street” themselves. He also knew his audience would never forgive him if he delivered a line not in keeping with his character.
  3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. The whole reason Big Bird’s appearance worked is because Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit production company behind “Sesame Street,” has a good sense of humor about itself and was willing to play along — as long as the brand’s integrity remained intact. That’s the sign of a strong brand.
  4. Remain relevant. “Sesame Street” has managed to do so after all these years, even with many of the same beloved characters. A child-like 8-foot bird that’s active on Twitter? Now, that’s hip.

Employee Communication: Help for a Disengaged Workforce

While doing some research for an employee communications class I’m teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University this fall, I ran across some compelling information about the mindset of many people in today’s workforce.

I’ve already shared data from a 2010 Maritz Research poll that found only 10 percent of employees trust management to make the right decisions in uncertain times. The same poll found only 14 percent believe their leaders are ethical and honest, and 12 percent believe their leaders listen to and care about employees.

According to the Gallup organization, 72 percent of employees are not engaged in their work. Basically, they’re going through the motions.

Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study in 2010 found that during the 2008-10 financial crisis, 72 percent of U.S. companies reduced their workforces. Seven out of 10 employees say this negatively affected how they feel about their work and employers.

Engagement matters, too. Three years earlier, Towers Perrin (the predecessor firm) found that return on assets in high-engagement companies was six times higher than low-engagement companies. High-engagement companies also had an average 19 percent increase in operating income and an average 28 percent growth in earnings per share year-over-year. In low-engagement companies, operating income dropped an average of 32 percent and EPS dropped an average of 11 percent year over year.

If you need more proof that engagement is important to a company’s success, here are all kinds of statistics on the subject.

Roger D’Aprix says employee engagement is “unleashing the energy and talent of people in the workplace.” Companies need engaged workforces to drive innovation, to ensure customer satisfaction, and because today’s society — not to mention today’s workers — expect it. Besides, considering the power of social media, would you rather have engaged or disengaged employees firing up Facebook and Twitter at night?

Employee communication plays a vital role in helping companies keep employees engaged and working for rather than against them. Consider some of the ways employee communication can help:

  • It helps keep everyone focused on the same things by explaining business goals
  • It helps build a sense of community among workers so that they feel they are a part of something important and good
  • It helps explain policies, procedures and culture — the way things are done around here
  • It helps demystify the complexities of the company
  • It helps explain to employees why they should want to be involved in the business and how they can be
  • It connects people with others in the organization who can help them accomplish things
  • It helps create a sense of trust between management and employees

Unfortunately in lean times like these, employee communication is often one of the first things to have its budget and resources reduced. Yet, these are the times when employee communication is needed most — to help engage a battered and disenfranchised workforce.

Ask Yourself These Questions Before Choosing Social Media

In my research preparing for a presentation at PRSA West Virginia’s recent seminar on social media, I came across some interesting data about social media’s explosive growth. The numbers have probably changed already, but they’re still staggering:

  • Facebook claims more than 500 million users of it service. The average user is connected to 80 pages, events or other communities.
  • More than 30 billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each month.
  • Twitter has 175 million users; 56 million follow eight or more accounts.
  • LinkedIn has 100 million registered users and is adding 1 million per week.
  • There are more than 7.5 million Foursquare users.

There’s no denying that social media have attracted huge numbers of people. But, as I cautioned the folks who attended the seminar, you need to seek the relevance in the numbers. Astronomical numbers don’t make social media a communications panacea.

Before choosing social media as part of a communication plan, you need to ask yourself some questions, including:

  • How many of these registered users are active?
  • How often do active users log into the service?
  • How long do they stay?
  • What do they do while they’re there?
  • What groups do they join?
  • What brands do they interact with?
  • To what extent do they share their brand experiences with others?
  • Perhaps most important, are these people your target audience? And once you reach them, do you intend to engage with them?

I’m a big believer in social media as another way to reach people. Just as with any media, however, it’s critical to know if social media platforms will help achieve your organization’s communication goals. Primarily, social media are an effective way to reach your organization’s target audiences in order to engage in conversations with them. And those conversations should have a purpose. They must advance your plan’s communication and engagement goals in some way.

Japan’s Pain is No Laughing Matter

It seems some people just don’t know when to shut up. And in the communication professions, that trait can be treacherous.

Gilbert Gottfried, one of the least funny comedians still getting work, lost his job as the voice of the Aflac duck (who knew that was Gottfried all this time?) after he tweeted some decidedly crass comments related to the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. He wasn’t alone. Dan Turner, spokesman for Mississippi Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Haley Barbour was fired for the same reason.

Both Aflac and Barbour did exactly the right thing. Spend a few minutes watching the horrifying footage coming out of Japan and you quickly realize there’s nothing funny about the catastrophe.

What really bothers me is that anyone would question whether or not the two spokesmen should have been fired. Yet comments on blogs and at communication websites like Ragan.com indicate people — even communicators — push the line between funny and tasteless to the outer limits.

It really makes me wonder what has led us to this point of accepting callousness, especially in the wake of one of the worst human tragedies of our time. Americans were pretty well united in our feeling that there should be a moratorium on wisecracks and gallows humor following 9/11, but the same rules don’t apply for a culture halfway around the world that we really don’t know or understand.

Pondering the reasons why caused me to recall a study I read about recently that found 75 percent of today’s college students report being less empathetic than previous generations and that the trend toward decreased compassion began about 30 years ago.

That sounds about right. I don’t need a study to tell me that people today generally think more of themselves, their needs, their rights, what happens to them than they think about other people. An entire generation (or two?) has been told how special they are, how they are all winners. This mindset yields Gilbert Gottfried making Japan jokes and Charlie Sheen selling out a “show” based on his narcissistic rants following his firing by a TV studio.

My 14-year-old son told me of a classroom discussion at school about the Japan tragedy. He said several guys in the class said they didn’t care what was happening in Japan; it’s half a world away and doesn’t affect them.

The study on students’ lack of empathy suggested that one cause might be the fact that students read less fiction today. Another study finds that reading may be linked to empathy; the number of stories preschoolers read predict their ability to understand others’ emotions. Adults who read less fiction say they are less empathetic.

We corporate communicators might have something to contribute. Perhaps the stories we tell in our organizations help our fellow employees to be more empathetic toward the people with whom they work. It’s certainly worth a shot.

The Egyptian Revolt, the American Workplace and Social Media

Did social media fuel the open revolt that’s taking place in Egypt as I write this post?

Observers and pundits are making some interesting points about the power of social media in the popular uprising in the world’s largest Arab nation. I tend to agree with blogger Mathew Ingram at GigaOM, who writes:

In the end, the real weapon is the power of networked communication itself. In previous revolutions it was the fax, or the pamphlet, or the cellphone — now it is SMS and Twitter and Facebook. Obviously none of these things cause revolutions, but to ignore or downplay their growing importance is also a mistake.

Networked communication has indeed changed the world. It has changed the way in which, and the speed with which, information flows. It has put more power in the hands of the masses, so those in power have no choice but to pay more heed to the people they lead (or over whom they rule).

When I read Ingram’s analysis, my mind immediately leapt to the closest thing to an autocracy I know: the American workplace. I don’t believe it’s too much of a stretch to compare the workplace to Egyptian society. People are led by someone they didn’t choose to lead them. The elite are only as benevolent toward the masses as they have to be. When the people perceive too much of a disparity between their own circumstances and those of their leaders, they tend to make some noise and, if not satisfied, to openly revolt.

There’s another similarity that business leaders ignore at their own risk. Employees have access to networked communication — until the elite shut it off. Even then, employees find a way to stay networked (using the Internet at home, for instance).

I laugh every time I hear of a company imposing a social media policy on employees — especially one that seeks to govern or even restrict what employees do on their own time with their own electronic devices. Future court cases may prove me wrong, but I believe it’s foolish for a company to think it can totally control employees’ social media activities — to keep them from complaining about their bosses, talking about the new benefits plan, discussing the company’s stock performance or giving their opinion about the latest product. I believe after things shake out a bit, we’ll see that companies can provide guidance, that they can advise employees about what are and aren’t appropriate topics of discussion on social media, but unless trade secrets are being revealed or slander is being broadcast, companies won’t have much of a legal leg to stand on when it comes to controlling social media in the off-hours.

Companies can either decide to engage with employees on social media — just as they should with customers and other stakeholders — or they can continue to live in the dream world that says they have the ultimate power when it comes to communication.

The real power is in the networked communication itself, to paraphrase Ingram. To try to control it is a mistake.