Can we be authentic and in PR

I admit to being a woman of strong opinions, and not knowing much about a subject has never been reason to hold me back from having one. But when it comes to the topic of authenticity in social media, I don’t have a strong opinion because I see two valid sides of the argument. I would really like to hear your thoughts to help me shape my own.

Here’s the situation.

Social media, in my view, works best when what you say is authentic and real. When it’s about sharing information and conversation. Works worst when it’s being used as a one-way tool for broadcasting and has no intention of engaging.

Authenticity requires a person to be who they are. Establish themselves in a real way. So if you met them in person, you wouldn’t be all that surprised.

As a PR professional working in a global company, it can be challenging to be authentic all the time. In some cases, it’s not appropriate to comment on a product of a client’s competitor — whether you really like it or you don’t. And, goes without saying, really never appropriate to make a negative comment about a client’s product.

But with offices around the globe, it’s not always easy to know who all the clients are. And we don’t yet know who all our clients will be in the future, so it might mean if you’re in PR, you’re ability to speak authentically in social media is severely curtailed.

The recent case of the PR firm that was supporting Chrysler’s Made in Detroit campaign, (which by the way is one of my favourites this year so have a watch), in which an errant tweet by a staffer got him fired and then resulted in the termination of the PR company’s contract, is a perfect example of where it’s really not easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Many of us leading businesses encourage our staff to take risks and think big. But this only works if the downside of making a mistake or showing poor judgement, and I’m not speaking of malicious intentions, is that the penalty doesn’t involve termination. Because if it does, why would anyone want to take any risks? Wouldn’t it be far easier to keep completely silent and then how would we offer good advice about social media to our clients.

If I put a client’s hat on, I certainly get why they wouldn’t want to pay for a company’s services if individuals in that company are trashing them in social media, or more benignly, lauding their competition. Point taken.

So herein lies the dilemma. How can you be authentic if there are numerous topics that are out of bounds? What are the risks we take by sharing our opinions, knowing that sooner or later, someone inevitably will be offended by them.

And what advice and information do we provide the PR people who work for us, and want to be active in social media on their own time. In the age of social media, is their personal time really their own?

Would love to hear your thoughts, so I can better reflect on my own.

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5 Responses to Can we be authentic and in PR

  1. David Jones says:

    You’ll make your brain hurt if you try to figure out all the challenges of serving every master you have and the ones you don’t know about yet.

    I had this conversation with Joe Thornley back in 05 when I started my blog and made a crack in a post that I personally wasn’t a fan of Tim Horton’s coffee. I’m fine with the fact that Tim’s could refuse to work with me because of my honesty about my coffee drinking preferences. So be it.

    Mentioning clients, their competitors, your competitors has to be thought through. It shouldn’t be in the heat of passion and it should be in context of providing some sort of value, lesson or learning.

    I know Steve Rubel loves Apple to death. He talks about them constantly. I also know Edelman does a lot of work for RIM. I’m sure it causes a weird tension at times. So be it.

    I’m sure you have some sort of guidelines that cover this. perhaps a follow up post comparing the type of guidelines that exist in the industry would be good. I always thought H&K’s were bullet proof and provided guidance in using social media for clients, professionally and personally. http://www.scribd.com/doc/19033632/Hill-Knowltons-Social-Media-Principles-Public-Draft-Document

  2. Simon says:

    Happy to see I’m not alone in wrestling with this one.

    My professional experience is limited, but I can tell you that the one tweet from Chrysler’s account was re-tweeted thousands of times and gained them a ton of followers, basically establishing Chrysler’s relevance on Twitter… accidentally. It showed a human side to a corporation that to this day has a massive image problem (to say nothing of their products). And for this happy accident, the staffer and digital agency were fired. When the cost of “failure” is so high and the consequences have no real-life link to the actions and their results, people are basically handcuffed. They literally can’t do the work they need to do.

    Maybe the agency that Chrysler fired is partly to blame, in that they couldn’t adequately explain the positive aspects to their mistake and didn’t feel it important to defend their employee, but Chrysler basically doesn’t get it. They’ve taken a lot of heat from some influential auto-blogs in regards to how they treated their agency, and I can’t help but wonder who’ll want them as a client knowing that they’re completely unreasonable. I suppose their business is worth millions and that money talks, but still…

    “Authenticity requires a person to be who they are. Establish themselves in a real way. So if you met them in person, you wouldn’t be all that surprised.”

    I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but I know that the person I am makes mistakes and learns from them. It’s real and it happens. If social media is to be an honest and authentic form of 2-way conversation, if authenticity is a prerequisite for effective use of social media, then we need to acknowledge the fact that mistakes can and do happen. It’s not as much the mistakes but how you learn from it and bounce back that really matters, or at least I hope so.

    On a personal social media note, I’ve taken a lot of anonymous heat from “Important Industry Professionals” for some of my tweets, and as a result deleted nearly 4000 tweets and started from scratch. The fact is that while your personal social media account is just that, far too many people aren’t able to differentiate between “personal” and “business,” so it’s to your advantage to pretend you’re always at work. Still, a large part of me wishes I had the leeway David Jones has with his personal social media uses (Tim Hortons, etc) but I suppose that’s a privilege that years of experience grants you. “So be it” isn’t an option for me.

    In the end, it seems like we’re quickly reaching a breaking point with social media. We’re either going to have to actually accept authenticity and everything that comes with it including mistakes and honesty, or we can not. If we choose to accept authenticity, we need more realistic consequences, and if we don’t we run the risk of seeing a promising form of communication get dropped, because the consequences simply won’t be worth it.

  3. Lesli Boldt says:

    I agree with you 100 per cent, Patti. Authenticity isn’t just what’s needed on Twitter – it’s what’s needed in a world fraught with profound social, environmental and economic challenges. There’s no room for fake, or for contracting out the truth. With the advent of social media, people have higher expectations on brands, public figures etc. If you’re in the social media space, you’d better be authentic or you’re going to get burned.

    Now, sometimes it makes sense for an agency or consultant to manage your social media strategy, when you’re promoting an event or concert series (or for that matter, promoting lots of things that are fun and good, and where the account isn’t tied to a particular individual or brand. But I don’t think it ever makes sense to contract out a person’s voice, when you’re communicating on behalf of an actual person in real life -even when it’s Barack Obama.

    To my clients who say, “I need a social media strategy,” my response is most often: “Do you?” They want to contract out blogging and tweeting and FB for someone else to execute, when their customers or target audiences may or may not be active in the social media space.

    As communications practitioners, our role is shifting from one where we execute tactics on behalf of a client, to one where we advise them on what tactics are right for them and then hand over the keys to them. This does present challenges for the traditional agency business model, where billable hours are built on the bedrock of tactical execution. And so, as the industry changes, we need to change with it.

  4. Pingback: Blogging in the Corporate Communications Industry | vickynoble

  5. Deanna says:

    Although I don’t have concrete answers to these complex and evolving problems with social media, I love that you are posing these questions.
    We all need to think deeply about the direction of social media, effectively walking the line between honesty and authenticity, so that we don’t strangle the life out of it.

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