There are a couple of public relations firms in my market that have mistakenly adopted the notion that social media is free, much like a shrimp cocktail, hot dog, or breakfast buffet used to be in Vegas. As the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. And in this case, the only thing their clients get is indigestion.
Case in point, I was recently forwarded an internal e-mail sent to all the employees (and ex employees) of one company, which was recently advised to adopt social media because it's free. The pitch presented the myth: social media is free because you can require your employees to market for you. In fact, they concluded, the more employees, the better the reach.
How Do Executives Interpret A Free Lunch?
The executive not only bit, he sent an e-mail that smacks of astroturf in the making and might be illegal (which is why we omitted the offending company's name). And instead of a free lunch, all he received was an internal crisis communication situation of epic proportions. How do I know? If it wasn't epic, someone would have never forwarded this to me...
This is not a request.
If you are receiving this email, you are part of the acme company and we all need to participate in these marketing efforts.
By the end of the week, we will audit the sites and if you have a facebook page and did not sign up, you will be written up.
Participation in making our company better is never an option.
There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.
While it would certainly be easier to illustrate what is right about this e-mail (um, nothing), there are dozens of reasons to reconsider the free lunch concept. Here are the top ten reasons why marketing executives cannot eat for free, especially when they are really asking employees to pay for it on the backs of their friends and family...
• Requiring employees to turn personal accounts into mini-marketing vehicles is wrong.
• Asking employees to work overtime without compensation is wrong and could violate federal labor laws.
• Not every employee is suitable as a customer service spokesperson, especially if they're sequestered.
• Most employees are already overburdened with work and don't need online marketing distractions.
• Some employees share painfully vivid personal information about themselves online, better left unshared.
• Most social network accounts are personal; asking people to blast family and friends is futile.
• When employees leave, and one day they will, they will take those customer connections with them.
• Launching a social media program without a strategic communication plan increases company risk.
• Customers feel overwhelmed visiting Facebook pages or groups with a 10:1 employee-to-visitor ratio.
• Participation in making a company better is ALWAYS an option; it has to be earned by an employer.
Whereas no one can blame the executive for hoping employees might give the business a boost, the launch and entire program is fundamentally flawed. And, after the e-mail, even those employees who might have been inclined to promote the company were turned off by the apparent lack of mutual respect.
From what I've seen, a second marketing person tried to save the day with cheerleader follow ups, but the real kicker was the second e-mail from the marketing executive. It wasn't an apology nor did it exhibit any sense of empathy. His next e-mail retracted the threat, conveyed desperation (but we'd still like you to be our friend), and concluded that "open communication between all levels of our team is important in maintaining long-term success and a happy work environment."
As for those employees without Facebook accounts? They are not required at this time. (Seriously.)
Bad Communication Is A Sign Of Bigger Problems.
So how did this all start? Simple enough. The company is in trouble. And as a solution, its public relations firm offered up the notion of social media as a free lunch. While we don't know if they suggested it as an added value service (free) or for an additional monthly consulting fee, we do know the why behind the lie. If all the employees had signed on to spike the social media reach of this company, the public relations firm could have added the outcomes to its column inch counts. Sick.
Sure, digital communication is moving forward. Social media presents some compelling case studies. It can augment other communication efforts for a fraction of the cost.
However, not all public relations firms can make it work. Most lack the skill sets. How can you tell? If they open with the notion that social media is free, run away. If they fit somewhere on the carpetbagger list, find a new firm. And if they boast about taking seminars for six months to become experts, they are the furthest from it.
As the above e-mail illustrates, a little bit of knowledge about a subject doesn't make someone an expert. It makes them dangerous.