It is precisely because SNS platforms attract such a wide multicultural array of people that the meaning attached to an image, or the words used in a written communication, may be subject to a very personal interpretation. In pre-internet communications control mechanisms existed in terms of local chapters or offices in specific countries that would adapt communications messages issued from head offices, ensuring that it was culturally sensitive and consistent in impact based on a series of local conditions. While these filters are still present the potential to bypass them is much greater now that more people are connected together the borderless SNS environment.
How then can organizations leverage SNS technologies ability to bring large congregations of geographically dispersed groups together while at the same time mitigate the chances that strategic communications messages might be complicated by some of these new problems?
- Draft an organizational Social Media Policy (SMP)
- Draft Staff guidelines that contextualize the SMP in ways that are meaningful to its users.
- Provide external public’s with a clear map of how the organizations Social Media strategy fits together.
These three elements are key to creating a resilient and effective organizational social media strategy. Through their implementation organizations have the added benefit of granting themselves the space to breathe and consider how they want their social media to develop, rather than responding to daily fire-fighting concerned with trivial issues of bad comments, and the number of likes and followers you have.
It is to these documents that we will turn in due course but first, it’s worth giving some critique to the risks of participating in SNS. There are risks, and there are problems, and it’s very difficult for practitioners evaluating SNS to get a true sense of these. There is always much noise about a new phenomenon, but sadly an increasing lack of critique about SNS platforms and the problems they can create. By having some of the risks down, it will become much easier to work through the ways to address these risks, just as found in the cyclic process of other communications channels
From the time it takes to register a new user account on Facebook, to writing the first message, as little as 60 seconds can pass. It’s the same with Twitter as it is with others, and it’s a testament to both the advances made in technology and web architects’ ability to create easy to use, universally accessible platforms.
But ease of use can also result in catastrophic meltdowns, and periodically companies find themselves on the front page of newspapers due to employees not acknowledging the thin line that exists between private and public space.
All messages sent via social media platforms are transcribed by a user, and stored on a server. A server which, as an organization you may or may not be able to have absolute ownership of. While you might be able to delete messages, in some cases you may have no certainty of knowing if the information has been permanently deleted or if stored, how securely. While being bound by the terms and conditions at the point of membership, these terms can be changed. What’s more, commercial companies merge, and data ownership can change hands. Who’s to say whether that information ends up in the hands of companies operating in countries with nondescript privacy and copyright laws? What might be the value of a piece of information that casts doubt on the elect-ability of a new president because of a page or group they liked when they were 13? While we might think we are aware of our actions when we are a child, adulthood provides the wisdom that we are not.
For strategic communications, once an organization sends out a message, it has been published forever. Just as web.archive.org provides an eternal record of websites in their earliest forms, with SNS once an electronic communication is sent, it’s never forgotten.
For Professional Communicators this ‘eternity of information’ can be problematic because while an organizations policies, practice and conventions at a business or societal level evolve over time, the Tweet, or Facebook status update remains fixed in time. Something embarrassing, that may not have been anything other than a user input error or a change in policy, take on a whole new life inside SNS.
While it’s true that a TV and video recorder could provide the same ‘eternity of information’, it is the new technologies portability and sharing capacity of information that means things can gain momentum very very quickly.
That would rightfully make any professional communicator nervous from the outset, and probably goes some way to explaining some of the reluctance communicators have about embracing and developing social media strategies.
It is a mistake to classify social media as a passing fad and not assign to it the same rigour and control as the other established communications methods, such as press releases.
There is no shortage of information that sings the praises of social networking sites (SNS) and how they are encouraging the ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’ of new public’s for the organizations and businesses that are using them.
SNS public relations departments are never far away from emphasizing the number of people that have active memberships in their platforms and the consequent reach that an SNS can have for an organization or business. This opportunity is available to everyone FOR FREE in exchange for an email address, and some personal information. But does having a massive volume of people to target in a campaign necessarily equal that a campaign will be successful, in the same way that having the lowest price will guarantee that you are the market leader?
Rather than provide another bedazzled eulogy of how amazing SNS are, I intend to frame this final section with research and examples that show how an SNS could be complicating and distorting the way that an organizations communications messages is received.
1) Geographic Control Mechanisms
There exist very few ways in which organizations can place distribution control mechanisms onto the content that they post via social media networks. That means that communication messaging needs to be universal, or at least considered in a global multi-cultural context. For organizations with very wide-reaching international mandates finding a clear and coherent voice across so many different cultures will be challenging at the best of times. Is it even practically possible for organizations and their communications practitioners to be versed in the societal norms and cultural values held by a world-wide audience, and differing ways that visual content can be interpreted across these borders?
2) Impossibility of being able to anticipate content redistribution
With the portability of information between platforms made viable with web standards such as really simple syndication (whether it’s publishing an organizational blog simultaneously inside a Facebook Fan page, or posting these status updates from the blog to Twitter), it is virtually impossible for organizations to anticipate where their messages may appear afterwards, and more importantly, what part of the message will be retained in the process. In many cases the original context of the message can become lost – and what’s lost could be the information necessary to frame the organizational position, or explain the issue more clearly – and in cases where the message relates to sensitive issues concerning vulnerable people, or the advocacy efforts of an organization, this message redistribution could be strategically damaging if not thought through properly
3) Reducing deep discussion in favour of visual eye candy
The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” is, in the case of Facebook has through the way pages are designed become a fact. Whether on a Fan page or on a user’s personal news feed the attention is drawn more to the visual imagery used in published items than the written words used to describe them. In addition Facebook automatically collapses comments on discussions, showing instead the numeric value of total comments and/or likes an item has received. To view the comments, a user will go through the act of clicking the comments to expand them. This differs from other historic forms of user engagement (such as blogs and discussion forums), where conversational thread are displayed in full by default.
Because Facebook chooses to collapse these comments, the evaluation process used by a person deciding on whether to click a published item is consequently moved away from the substance of the comments, towards the visual cues that are given alongside the published item:
In the case of the organizations Fan page, to on-page social proof factors that the published item generated a large volume of comments/likes by Fans, when compared to other items on that organizations fan page. Reasoning: I will click on the item that others saw were important
In the case of the user profile pages, to how that piece of content squares up against other items that have also been published to that persons news feed, and the ranking factors used by a person to decide whether that item should be clicked on or not (how attractive is the image, social proof factors, affinity with organization or cultural and religious beliefs). Reasoning: I will click on the item based on my own personal evaluation mechanism.
As shown in these two cases, the depth of engagement that an organization can hope to have with its audiences is reduced from the outset to the attractiveness of a visual image, and the rating factors a person may use to decide whether to click on a published item or not.
Clearly there is a challenge here for organizations to fit their communications messages into these contexts, and definite limitations on the extent to which sincere and deep engagement can be facilitated exclusively within an SNS environment.
It is a very pertinent question, and one that if answered in a satisfactory, empirically tested way would probably motivate a large number of organizations to be more interested in SNS. The following graphic illustrates three problems that are contributing to the impact that social media can have for organizations.
Research carried out by Taylor and Kent (2009) is very welcome. They analyzed a year’s worth of editions of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) monthly newspaper, Public Relations Tactics, to see whether the stories published and claims made were actually supported with evidence.
Their reasoning was that as the newspaper ultimately served as a way for PR practitioners, both experienced and through its student’s membership arm, to learn about the field of social media strategizing, it should follow that the newspaper provided critiques and appraisals of the value of using social media as part of the communicators toolset
The key findings are eye-opening:
- Two-thirds of the articles written in the magazine promoted the idea that social media was a powerful force in the work of public relations practice.
- However, only 31% of articles laid claim to evidence supporting the power of social media.
- 59% of articles offered suggestions on how to use social media, but this advice was largely tactical, and often reflected “little more than basic understanding about the technology’s potential for two-ways communication” (Taylor and Kent, p212).
While the results may not be surprising to practitioners working in the field of communication, what is slightly worrying is how little seems to be known at an institution that practitioners would look to for leadership or guidance. For the next generation of PR practitioners that receive the Public Relations Tactics newspaper as members of the PRSA’s student arm, how much these groups are able to think strategically and critically about the benefits of using social media is an interesting discussion point.
In the next post we will look at two case studies of how charitable organizations have used social media within their organizations.