The Haunting of Social Media

I recently had the pleasure of attending the graduation ceremony of my good friend in New Hampshire on May 20th at UNH. It was part of my post-school vacation to visit friends and family in New England. My friend received his Masters in English Literature and I was happy to, so recently, sit through another graduation ceremony. The speaker for this commencement was actor/playwright Mike O'Malley, known for his roles on CBS's "Yes, Dear" and Nickelodeon's "GUTS" show.

His speech was phenomenal. Just enough funny, just enough serious, and a whole lot of insight. One part in particular struck me heavily, heavily enough that I wrote down what he said on my program. He was talking about a show he wrote and starred in during the fall of 1999, "The Mike O'Malley Show," which was dropped by NBC after just two episodes. The criticism was brutal. About this he said,

"I learned the hard way that if you offer yourself up for people to have an opinion of you, they will have an opinion. If you make yourself so noticeable that people will be asked their opinion of you, they will respond in the manner in which they see fit. I was schooled in the ways of the printed word with swift and lasting effects. I learned that Freedom of Speech doesn’t guarantee kindness. Or encourage it. I had thought if I opened myself up and shared my passions, that there would be reciprocity and appreciation from everyone."

But he learned that the opposite can – and will – be true. That's exactly what organizations fear about social media. To put themselves out in the open, to be publicly criticized, to take the bad with the good for all to see is a risk they are often not willing to take. But there are people and organizations that do manage quite well using social media and embracing transparency. Transparency Works is one of my new favorite blogs. It's local (Cleveland based), thought provoking, and deals with this very topic. I've heard people say that strong brands resist openness and transparency (i.e. Google and Apple) and weak brands have nothing to lose (i.e. me). But a quick search will find Microsoft and other strong brands blogging – so that theory is weak. Chris Anderson wrote some worthy reading in Dec 05 about it. But there is such a fear of watering the brand, losing control, and dealing with the unknown. Fear is real. O'Malley also noted:

"Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, 'There is nothing to fear but fear itself.' He obviously didn’t get out very much. There’s plenty to fear. The world, as you know, can be a sinister place. You hold in your pockets devices that can give you up-to-the-second bad news from around the world."

And from the social media standpoint, bad news for businesses can survive in the longtail for a loooong time. Jumping into social media isn't for everyone. It takes time, it takes commitment, and it takes confidence in oneself and in one's organization – even if you're a student. But there are benefits to social media; I wrote a post about it and the obvious fact that people are still utilizing them is a ringing endorsement.

So there's fear and hesitation. As PR people we need to promote the best course of action for our clients or organizations. Sometimes that includes using social media and sometimes it doesn't. I always go back to the important question. It's not "should my company be blogging?" but rather "why should my company be blogging?" That little change in perspective makes all the difference between jumping on the bandwagon and strategic planning. That difference will help overcome the fear. If you can decide that social media will help achieve your goals, then the decision should be as easy as whether to pitch a story to an editor; no more, no less.