This week I attended the BlogWell Atlanta conference, put on by SocialMedia.org. The conference had a great format, quick-hit case studies from Atlanta-centric corporations on their social media efforts. My favorite was from The Home Depot, describing an online community they built with employee bloggers who are true subject matter experts. Next time I have a DIY project to take on, I’m going to pose a question to the experts and await their reply.
What struck me about The Home Depot’s effort was first, the authentic voice that comes across when you empower employees to share what they do in the stores with an online community. These aren’t PR and marketing people writing for the site, they are seasoned associates with specific expertise, who still work in the stores, and are in the online community to engage customers in another format. The second takeaway, for me, was the trust the company puts in these experts. They are free to direct the subject matter and there aren’t layers of approvals required that could slow down response time or take away the unique voice of each expert.
The conference also included a general session about ethics. The speaker emphasized that social media ethics is a matter of law, not opinion. The FTC has dictated certain guidelines, including:
• Require disclosure and truthfulness in social media outreach.
• Monitor conversations and attempt to correct misstatements.
• Create social media policies and employee training programs.
The bottom line is that companies, and individual bloggers, must be authentic in their voice and transparent about anything that might be seen as un-ethical. For example, if you are paid to review a product, you should disclose it. If you are a company and are recruiting, and paying, people to speak on your behalf, you should expose it. If you see false information about your company online, you should attempt to clarify it to the best extent possible. Of course, not every company will see every mention, but at the very least in company-sponsored sites or where the company has fuller engagement, the conversation should be monitored. The minimum standard on social media messaging should be: Is it apparent to the average reader that a message is marketing, not an authentic customer commentary?
The other element to social media ethics is communicating to employees about the rules. The biggest risk is that employees don’t know that what they’re doing might be wrong. This thinking also applies to any agencies a company may hire to implement a communications plan. There are increasingly more examples of social media gone wrong. Sometimes it’s because a campaign came across as offensive, sometimes it’s because an individual posts an inappropriate message that goes viral and damages a company’s reputation.
SocialMedia.org has a handy toolkit online that can be helpful to companies trying to establish, or clarify, social media policies and employee training.
The speaker concluded with this message: If you have to ask if something is wrong, don’t do it. I had a grad school professor at UGA who often said: the four most important words a public relations professional can say are: “Hey, wait a minute!” That advice, learned more than 20 years ago, is just as relevant today.