Reading through a global FMCG brand’s social media crisis communications guidelines this week I noted first that this mighty tome ran to 30 odd pages. Next that practically every other page exhorted the reader to ‘be real’.
In the old days of PR, before social, we media trained our executives to stay on message. We drafted up soundbites that pithily encapsulated our corporate story. We drilled the classic Paxman-facing-politician’s techniques of ‘managing’ a question, bridging back to the core point they wanted to deliver, no matter what the question (or how often they were asked it). “Of course you’re right that XYZ is important but not as important as the key corporate message I need to deliver here,” etc.
Companies restricted who could talk to the media. And those that did, especially with any regularity, would be supported and trained. So staying on message in the face of a newshound of a hack was a challenge, but one that had been well prepared for.
I know executives still face the media music and are still media trained, but today, it’s not just the well drilled and experienced who are speaking in public. Many organisations overtly task, or at a minimum authorise, a cross section of employees to engage in conversations in social media.
This presents a couple of problems. Communication in social media is conversational. You have conversations with humans. For senior executives this means leaving corporate speak behind – un-learning all that media training. It’s daunting when those protective restrictions are removed. For other employees though this is a step into a new world of communications hitherto reserved for the highly trained. To some extent an uncharted world where they must ‘be human’, and yet there be dragons.
Much has been made, from the perspective of impact on brand reputation, of the social media nightmares ignited or accelerated by inexperienced or untrained staff. Virgin Atlantic, Honda and Vodafone spring to mind as cautionary tales. But what of the impact of taking on the responsibility for social media communications on employees? Are we adequately preparing them to take part? Do they understand the benefits, opportunities and liabilities not just at the corporate but at a personal level? Crucially, have we understood the pressure this puts them under?
When speaking for your company was a job role for senior executives, the pressure was understood and managed. Now, untrained and unskilled people are given an awesome responsibility for brand communications with little support and much room for very public vilification, not to mention career risk, if it goes wrong.
Social media guidelines are a necessary part of good corporate governance. But I’m not sure, after being chastened by 30 pages of rules and regulations, that employees will have the heart or confidence to ‘be real’, when or if they engage in social media.