Social media can ruin your future. It’s that simple. Social media puts your reputation at risk when you post something inappropriate, illegal, immoral, unethical or just plain nasty. A perfect example of this is a small group of Harvard University accepted students – who engaged in a private Facebook chat where they shared sexually explicit memes and messages that also targeted minority groups. They aren’t going to Harvard now. Their admission has been rescinded, according to the Ivy League school. Their futures aren’t so bright now.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened and it won’t be the last. Heck, there are people who were stars in the world of PR and social media who have been taken down because they posted something unacceptable – often thinking they were being funny.
One of the elements of social media that I appreciate – in both my personal and professional life – is how it allows you to see someone for who they truly are. Years ago, before social media (remember that?), people could show one face publicly and be someone else entirely behind closed doors. Not anymore. Social media has erased that boundary – and I think that is a great thing. You see, even if people are trying to showcase themselves in a particular way, if it isn’t authentic to who they really are – at some point – they will slip up, let their guard down, respond to something… and they will get caught. And many of those people should be unmasked for who and what they really are. If there is a theme of ugly beliefs or behaviours that surface, then they deserve what they get.
What about the person who makes a genuine mistake or the one who behaves poorly but learns from it? Social media is unforgiving – what you comment on or post lives on forever. Even when you take it down, it’s likely someone has a copy or screenshot of it. Social media never forgets.
When we work with clients on social media, we tell them that whatever they post on social media should be done with thought, respect and consideration. It’s perfectly reasonable to enter a discussion, dialogue or debate to disagree. But imagine if what you wrote was run across a jumbotron screen or published on the front page of a national newspaper – would you be proud or ashamed? Not just of what you said, but also how you said it and how you engaged with others. Sometimes, we need to be the “grown-up” if a conversation turns nasty or aggressive – to respectfully stand up for what is right or, if appropriate, to disengage.
This isn’t just professional advice; it’s personal advice too. Be careful out there. Your reputation is at risk.
We recently had a potential client come to us for a social media strategy and tactical plan. They also wanted us to implement the plan. As they laid out their goals, targets and key performance indicators (KPIs) for the first six months, we worked to respectfully, but honestly communicate that what they expected was close to impossible – for anyone. (And that anyone who said they could achieve those targets was either misinformed or overselling themselves.) In addition to unrealistic goals, they had an incredibly small budget. They were adamant about their expectations and didn’t want to hear our feedback about the realities of what could be accomplished. It was clear that this client wasn’t a good fit for us, so we respectfully declined this contract.
We love social media and have an in-depth knowledge of the power of social networks and online engagement – but it takes resources, effort and time to build a community, to create engagement, and to facilitate communication and dialogue. We’ve been including social and digital media in our strategic communications plans since we opened our doors over 14 years ago. And we have learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to do social and digital media well.
View social and digital media as a component of your overall communications strategy.
No element is a stand-alone and there will always be overlap. It is crucial that you don’t just repost the same content on all of your networks. Change it up a bit to speak to the specific community or stakeholders, use different images, and stagger the posts from one network to another.
Don’t try to be all things to all people.
Unless you are a large consumer product or service company – limit which networks you use. It is impossible to keep up with multiple social media networks and do it well. Pick your top one, two or three and do those well first – and then see how you can expand out.
Create an editorial calendar.
Have it include all of your communication vehicles, networks and outreach. Identify the events, initiatives and information you will share and work through it like a magazine would work through their editorial lineup for the year, quarter, month and week.
Put enough resources into it to do it right.
Having someone manage your social media from the side of their desk doesn’t work anymore.
Respect the fact that your social media channels are a megaphone to the world.
Copyedit, proofread and fact check what you are saying. It matters.
Give yourself time to build a community and to create engagement.
Don’t expect that you will have thousands of followers the first week you are active on a social network. It doesn’t work quickly – and you want a good community that will engage. That takes time.
Give more than you take.
Engage with others. Comment, retweet and share. If you aren’t actively supporting others, you can’t expect them to support you.
Keep the algorithms of the social network in mind.
On Facebook, your followers might not see a specific post. Comment on your own post or respond to a comment to help bump it up a little. Don’t repeat a post three or four times a day – that becomes irritating to your audience – and don’t try to trick them by changing up one thing like an image. Your audience will see through that. If you want to make sure they have seen your post, find different ways to showcase it that isn’t irritating and repetitive.
Spread it out over a range of channels and social networks – plan it out with the editorial calendar.
Social and digital media are important parts of a communications strategy. To do it well, you need time, resources and action.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know about the challenges that United Airlines has experienced recently. While one incident garnered the most news coverage and criticism on social media, several situations that could have been avoided, had they been handled differently, have come up and have shown the ugly underside of the culture of the organization. And it has cost them dearly – financially (their stock has dropped in the hundreds of millions) and with the long-term damage to their brand.
The biggest incident, with a 69-year-old doctor being physically assaulted and dragged off the plane, didn’t need to happen. In a nutshell, United had overbooked a flight and four passengers who were on the flight were informed that they had been bumped – to accommodate crew who needed to get to the destination airport to get onto another flight for work. Three accommodated and one said he wasn’t going to deplane. Since he refused, they called in the Chicago Department of Aviation Security Officers and they physically assaulted him and dragged him off the flight.
Let’s just replay it in a way that would have had a different outcome.
BEFORE passengers board the flight, the airline offers the most they can for four people to give up their seats. They have the captain request this over the loudspeaker, explaining how important it is. If this doesn’t work, they book their crew on another flight (even if they have to pay for seats on another airline or use a private plane to get them there).
There is some chatter that passengers were already on board before United realized that they needed the four seats. At that point, it should have been too late. Another way for the crew to get to their destination should have been worked out.
At the heart of this, there appears to be a culture of not caring about the customer (in this case, the passenger). Unfortunately, this is something that’s more typical than not these days. Here at AHA, we do a great deal of issues communication. I am always interested when something like the United issue plays out. When it does, I do a deep dive to understand what happened and what could have been done differently. Having said that, we are always cautious about criticizing how communications are handled in these situations, because unless you were in the room when these decisions were made, you really don’t know the whole story.
From a great deal of first-hand experience and extensive research, I can tell you that at the heart of so many issues like the one United is experiencing, there is a moment when someone in the company could have stepped up and done the right thing – but didn’t. And that choice can cost the organization a great deal. Many of these “moments” (that lead to a big issue) just needed an employee (whether in leadership or not) who could have de-escalated the situation rather than fuel it. A staff member could have said: “No, we need to get this right.”
What United needed at that moment was leadership from someone who cared about the passengers and who could see the bigger picture. Someone who could have approached the captain of the flight with the problem and a solution.
A situation, such as the United issue, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. From the hundreds of horror stories about United being shared online, there does appear to be a toxic culture at the airline. I have had personal experience in being treated poorly by United – see three blog posts: one, two and three). Typically what that means is that there is a problem at the senior level – and that permeates an entire organization and its culture. That is a leadership issue and a communications problem. And when you have a nasty culture, eventually it is going to play out in an issue, one way or another.
The fact is, someone on the United team who was in a position of power, influence or even respect, on that plane, could have had stepped forward and done the right thing and worked to defuse the situation instead of calling in the security officers. The key here is that the person who stepped up would have had to have felt empowered to do this. And given the outcome, you have to think that they didn’t.
Think about it. By upping the dollar amount to get someone to give up their seat – for a few thousand dollars – they could have found four people who would have been happy to get off the plane.
I did a TEDx talk a while ago about how doing the right thing is often much less costly. This continues to be true.
And United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, didn’t do the company or its brand any favours when his first statement after the incident didn’t acknowledge the injuries of the passenger or the violent way the situation was handled. In fact, it appeared, from a leaked internal e-mail, that he was applauding how it was handled and was blaming the victim.
United needed some strategic public relations immediately after this incident. It’s just as important to note that while addressing this incident with concern, compassion and showing how it would never happen again was crucial – United is dealing with a much bigger issue in their organizational culture. This isn’t a one-off situation with them. While I expect that every airline has people who have had a bad experience, United is known for its poor customer service and lack of care and consideration for its passengers. This problem goes much deeper with United and, from Munoz’s initial reaction and the internal memo he put out, this attitude comes from the top.
A couple of years ago, I found myself in South Africa meeting with one of our travel clients, Londolozi – a five-star safari lodge. Like most professionals that I know who are fortunate enough to travel for business, I took the opportunity to add some time onto the trip to see some of the beautiful country of South Africa. What an incredible place. I loved every minute of my time there and am looking forward to the day when I can go back.
One of the activities I did was cage diving with great white sharks off the coast of Gansbaai, which is about a two-hour drive from Cape Town. I have been thinking a great deal about that experience and what I learned that day.
Below are the top three communications lessons I learned from cage diving with great whites.
Prepare for What Could Go Wrong
When I decided to go cage diving with great whites, I did a huge amount of research. I read reviews of all of the tour providers, I read travel pieces about the activity, I talked to people who had done it – and one of the things I was looking for was what could go wrong. For this activity, it came down to two things that could spoil the adventure: 1) weather and 2) sea sickness (the threat of a shark bite is handled in the next point – “listen to the experts”).
I had no control over the weather, so I scheduled my cage dive early enough in my trip so that if the weather was bad, I could rebook it. And I did everything possible to keep from getting seasick. Even though I used to live on a boat and on a floating home, have sailed, boated, cruised, swam, waterskied and wake boarded all my life – I didn’t want to be seasick and miss out on this experience. I tool Gravol, I had ginger pieces with me, I had acupuncture bands to wear – and that worked for me. Several people on our boat were too seasick to do more than lay on the deck and groan – and I was so glad I had prepared for the “what could go wrong” scenario. And that’s what we need to think about as communicators – to make sure that we are prepared for what could happen. Putting solutions in place before the fact might seem like a lot of work for something that might never occur, but when it does – it makes a huge difference in managing the situation.
Learn as Much as You Can From the Experts
I did a huge amount of research in choosing the right great white shark cage diving tour operator. I wanted one that respected the environment, the ecosystem and the sharks. I also wanted the people running the tour to be experts on our safety. The boat’s captain gave an overview of how to keep safe both in and out of the water, we were informed about how we would find sharks and how to respect them and the environment – and each crewmember was clearly an expert on dealing with the guests’ fears, concerns and stupidity. No one got to show off, act out or do anything that didn’t comply with the rules.
However, beyond that, on the way out to sea and back in, I sat with several of the crewmembers. I took the opportunity to ask them some questions and the information they shared with me was exceptional. I asked them what I should be looking for, what they thought was the most interesting part of this encounter, and what they wished they could tell everyone who took this tour. Their responses were incredible – personal, inspiring, thoughtful, educational – and a few frightening ones! They had done hundreds, if not thousands, of these trips. They knew many of the sharks by sight and told me about their characteristics, their history and their behaviours. It was clear how much the crew respected and cared about the sharks – and appreciated being able to do this each day. And they seemed excited that I was curious enough to seek them out and ask questions – they kept calling me over to show me things.
As communicators, we often turn to subject matter experts to provide information for news releases, media pitches, statements, content creation and more. Rather than just getting the information you need for whatever you are working on, take a moment and actively listen to what the expert is passionate about, ask what they think people should know, and ask them what they feel is the key element regarding the topic. It is amazing how much more engaging your content will be when you do this.
Think About the Situation From a Different Perspective
Don’t get me wrong… I was incredibly happy that there was a cage in between me and the seven great white sharks we saw that day. But being in the water with those magnificent, elegant and incredibly powerful creatures made me think about the reports of shark attacks – which, for the most part, are quite rare and not often fatal. In fact, in 2015, more people died taking selfies of themselves than by shark attacks.
For the most part, when a shark bites a human being, it has either misidentified the person as food – such as a seal – or it is in investigative mode, trying to figure out what the person is: foe, food or a non-threat. If you view the shark from that perspective, they aren’t the monster human stalkers that they are often made out to be. They aren’t motivated by the need to kill.
As communicators, we often need to reach out during times of transition, organizational change, or in response to an issue or a crisis. It is easy to fall into the trap of seeing critics or those who are pushing back in a negative light. And that can impact the tone and style of what, when and how you communicate. Taking a step back and trying to understand what the barriers are – and why they exist – is an effective step forward in creating authentic, useful communication strategies, tools or tactics. Our role as communicators is to understand the intended audience, community or group, so that we can find the best way to authentically and respectfully communicate with them.
There have been times when it has fallen to me to explain to a client what, how and why people are not embracing change – that they feel disconnected from the leadership and their decisions or that they aren’t happy with decisions being made at an organizational level – and to effectively do that, it is crucial that I understand the perspective of the stakeholder in question. This doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree, but I have to be able to understand why the individual, team, department, company or group feels that way and be able to clearly share that with our client and provide recommendations on how we can bridge the gap. Shifting perspective is an important tool in doing this.
Cage diving with great whites was an incredible experience and one that I will never forget. And it gave me another lesson – more of a life lesson, I think. Do what scares you. I was pretty nervous about getting into the water with the sharks, and even though my hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, I did it anyway. I am so happy that I did. I have taken that lesson forward too and it’s made a huge difference in how l live my life.
The AHA team has worked with quite a few municipalities, providing a range of services from messaging development, stakeholder communications, social media, communications planning and implementation, and issues and crisis communication.