Tuesday, June 30

Killing Quietly: Social Media Is Often Silent

When most people talk about social media and corporate reputation, they talk about being prepared for social media firestorms, stakeholder perception, and how people are more likely to purchase products from companies they trust. All of these conversations are certainly part of the equation, but what about the subtle stuff? Does it matter? Should we care?

Several months ago, Michael Sommermeyer, court information officer for the Eighth Judicial District Court and the Las Vegas Township Justice Court in Las Vegas, posed his son's question: “If a tree falls in the forest, will it make a sound?”

Sommermeyer then applied the question to social media, asking "If an A-lister Twitters alone in the wilderness, will anyone hear?" He's not the first person to ask. He certainly won't be the last. And yet, more and more, I think it's the wrong question.

We no longer have to hear the tree fall or tweet chirp.

Online public sentiment toward people, products, companies, and organizations doesn't have to erupt in some fiery fashion like the favored case studies among social media speakers. The real danger is that there will never be a sound nor will anyone hear the explosion.

Or, to borrow the analogy I employed on RecruitingBlogs, maybe you don't have to hear the fall when the epicenter resembles the aftermath of the 1908 Siberian explosion. The unaddressed wreckage speaks for itself.

Sure, the Tunguska event took place after a ball of fire exploded about 6 miles (10 kilometers) above the ground. But it doesn't always have to be that way. Social media is much more likely to knock one tree down at a time, slowly eroding the brand. Nobody hears anything.

Since we've started researching online sentiment for several companies, organizations, and industries, we've noticed that most of the damage is subtle, seemingly one tree at a time.

• A public utility with customer service complaints written out in vivid detail, including customers left without heat for a winter weekend.
• A physical therapy practice considered area experts in its market, but with an online presence so thin that prospective patients are more likely to find faith healers.
• A government agency that invests 90 percent of its time answering questions posed by traditional media while ignoring citizen advocates that are 90 percent more likely to adopt the agency's message.
• An entire industry suffering from a labor shortage, with recruitment efforts being undermined as potential employees discover more than 80 percent of all online comments are negative and the remaining 20 percent are best described as neutral.

In all of these cases, there was no thunderous explosion. The challenges are subtle, with one tree dropping at a time until entire forests are laid bare or, if you prefer, the brand has eroded beyond recognition. And this is the way most brands end, not with a bang but a whimper.

Monday, June 29

Uniting For Iran: Bloggers Unite

News organizations may be restricted inside Iran but various reports still manage to make headlines, ranging from militiamen "carrying out brutal nighttime raids, destroying property in private homes and beating civilians in an attempt to stop nightly protest chants" to several British Embassy employees being targeted and detained.

The turmoil began as a national disturbance shortly after the polls closed on June 12. It continues to escalate as protesters reject reports that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who assumed office in 2005, earned more than 60 percent of the votes cast. The election was rigged, they say. More than 2,000 Iranians have been arrested and hundreds more have disappeared since.

"We have enjoyed so much freedom for so long that we are perhaps in danger of forgetting how much blood it cost to establish the Bill of Rights." — Felix Frankfurter, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, 1939-1962

Not everyone. People from around the world are uniting for free elections in Iran. Some are sharing their thoughts on blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Many of them are asking their readers, followers, and friends to visit Amnesty International or other human rights groups to take action.

But even those who do not take direct action can have an impact as elected officials and government leaders around the world look toward social media to gauge public sentiment. Members of the media do too. Since June 12, social media has hastened the shift of some administrations from painfully dismissive to cautiously concerned.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Sure, Matt Sussman was only penning satire, but not all detractors do.

"I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations." — James Madison, Virginia Convention, 1788

Madison might have been talking about the United States in the late 1700s, but the sentiment can easily be transplanted to today. Sometimes, I think people forget what it was like five or ten years ago when the most action any member of the public took over political unrest was grumbling at a television set.

Does it matter? Of course it matters. It matters just as much as the groundwork laid by Gandhi through the Satyagraha in India. While the exact reasons for the British departure is more likely related to the creation of the Indian National Army and the revolt of the Royal Indian Navy, the foundation for such events and the global perception of British occupation was set much earlier.

Does it matter? The Guardian reports, maybe so. We tend to agree. Silent acceptance and excuse against any action are most often the preferred means of oppressive governance. It's so much easier to rule when the people do nothing, believing themselves unfit.

"Many politicians are in the habit of laying it down as a self-evident proposition that no people ought to be free till they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water til he had learned to swim." — Lord Thomas Macaulay, politician, essayist, poet and popular historian, 1800-1859

Friday, June 26

Selling You On Twitter: uSocial

“We just signed a contract with a large Fortune 500 company who have invested around $22,000 with us to conduct a continuing Twitter marketing campaign. The package includes some custom-designed tactics for them, as well as some services of ours which are publicly available like our Twitter follower packages." — Leon Hill, CEO of uSocial.net

So what is uSocial’s Twitter follower packages? According to the OfficialWire, its suite of Twitter marketing services includes allowing their clients to buy Twitter followers.

Buy Followers?

Right. uSocial claims for an investment of only $87, "we'll bring you 1,000 brand new Twitter followers to your existing account, or we'll set up a new account for yourself or your business at no charge in order to deliver the followers." If you think that is a bargain, 100,000 Twitter followers is $3,479 (normally charged at $4,970), which makes us all cheap. Cheep.

“Our client has requested anonymity, however I can tell you they’re an organization in the health sector,” Hill told OfficialWire. “I wish I could say more, though I have to respect the wishes of my paying customers.”

We're not surprised. Any decision maker willing to purchase Twitter followers is unlikely to be authentic, externally or internally.

Thursday, June 25

Flirting With Brand Damage: Mark Sanford

"When we do these kinds of things like what happened with Ensign and now with Sanford it hurts our credibility as a party of good governing and of values.” — Ron Kaufman, lobbyist

If anyone is wondering (and some people still are) why marital affairs seem to roll off some politicians and not others, look no further than the Fragile Brand Theory. It has much less to do with the personal lives of political candidates and much more to do with the personal brands they adopt.

Never mind that 90 percent of Americans believe affairs are morally wrong. Conservative estimates suggest affairs are commonplace, with estimates that 60 percent of all men and and women will have an affair. Quantified, that would mean infidelity impacts approximately 80 percent of all marriages with varying degrees.

As for politics, marital affairs became fair game in 1828, with Andrew Jackson's opposition wondering if his wife was legally divorced by the time they married. Since, Wendell Wilkie, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy all had affairs. And along with Bill Clinton in 1998, MSNBC reports there have been 23 high profile scandals in the last decade alone, which seems to coincide with increased public scrutiny over personal choices as well as the global trend to place less value on the definition of marriage.

Understanding marriage and extramarital affairs as a definition

While researchers generally break down extramarital affairs into physical and emotional attraction with the root cause being dissatisfaction with their partners, the real reasons are generally much more individualized. They could stem from any number of reasons, including low self-esteem, physical fantasy, geographical distance, pressure escapism, random encounter, intoxication, dissatisfaction in a marital role (with no bearing on the partner), and so on and so forth.

However, regardless of the reasons, extramarital affairs provide a stark contrast to the value most modern civilized societies place on a family to provide an intimate environment, mutual support, emotional security, and personal commitment. In simplest terms, and from a brand perspective, marriage is among the most prized of all partnerships.

Affairs, on the other hand, are generally regarded as the polar opposite, much more so than any other factor that could potentially estrange a relationship (e.g., poor financial management, the assumption a marital contract exempts poor personal choices, etc.). In simplest terms, and from a brand perspective, affairs represent selfishness and betrayal.

Understanding the public figure's ability to survive one

Why was John F. Kennedy or Bill Clinton able to mostly survive extramarital affairs whereas John Ensign and Mark Sanford cannot (beyond the apparent hypocrisy)? They did for very different reasons.

Kennedy carried forth a suave and youthful image during an era well suited to ignore it. And Clinton's emphasis was on being human for nearly ten years, and thus more apt to make a human mistake. (Ergo, a man with a weakness for a Big Mac might very well have other weaknesses.)

Of course, there are other factors too. Any infraction made by a public figure is dependent on the company they keep and on how they handle the crisis once it surfaces.

In Nevada, the feeling toward John Ensign is one of disappointment after a somber but articulate press conference. In South Carolina, Sanford's bumbled press conference seems to be facing more backlash for breaking trust and betraying not only his wife but those he governed.

Multiple messages and brands dictate public figure outcomes

While predicting outcomes might be simple, any public consequence is a complex combination of personal branding, organizational (party) branding, definition (marriage) branding, current public sentiment, personal cause, and the ability to appropriately handle the crisis. Case in point, the public tends to see celebrity infidelity as vastly different — with more concern over who the celebrity has an affair with rather than the fact they had an affair.

In contrast, Republicans normally embrace certain core values, which generally reside too far away from the core of being human. And while I'd be the last to suggest Republicans sacrifice the concept of these values in order to curry the favor of more exceptions, they might consider whether it's time to reconsider the construct.

While striving (sometimes unsuccessively) for higher purpose is always admirable, current cultural trends seem to suggest that being human is all too common for any public figure to allow themselves to be placed on pedestal made of clay. In fact, the very dynamic of doing so might make one party seem overly selective (with greater failures), leaving the other to represent everyone else who is willing to admit they sometimes make mistakes.

After all, no one can really place so much emphasis on higher principles or moral ground at the risk of overriding the most admirable of all. Forgiveness.

Tuesday, June 23

Going Green: Free Iran

While most people have heard that social media has played a role in the post-election results in Iran, the consequences of immediate communication and online conversation have an impact that is equally compelling to on-the-ground coverage.

While Valeria Maltoni sees the potential for crowdsourcing to surpass CNN news (it can), we also see it as an interesting division. Whereas traditional media has been tending to cover the sentiment of the elected, social media tends to reveal the sentiment of those who elect. And that is making the elected take notice.

Mass Influence Over Influencers

Even in the United States, President Obama has been compelled to step up his stance on Iran. Originally, he hoped to avoid commenting about the democratic process of Iran over concern for future diplomacy with a country known to be developing a nuclear program and backing militant organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah. However, his initial hands-off stance had been largely viewed as timid and unrepresentative.

Yesterday, that changed. President Obama, who now says he was moved by the protest images, has called for an end to the violence while advising those who govern that they ought to lead by consent over coercion.

It's equally likely he wasn't moved on his own. Overwhelmingly, Americans have helped make the Iranian elections two of the top ten stories on the Internet — the election itself and the State Department asking Twitter to hold off on scheduled maintenance in order to ensure real-time citizen reporting.

News that used to die in a day isn't so easily forgotten. People all over the world want resolution.

BloggersUnite Hosts Spontaneous Event

BloggersUnite.org, which is a nonprofit platform that encourages bloggers to do good and raise social awareness, has launched an initiative that asks bloggers and network participants to use their blogs and accounts to do exactly that. They are asking bloggers and network members to continue their efforts, drawing even more awareness to the Iranian election and related atrocities in Iran through June 29.

“When we host organized campaigns, they are usually 90 days in the making,” said Antony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog.com and founder of BloggersUnite.org. “This time, the crisis is now, the need for action is now, the initiative is now.”

The event has already received praise by Amnesty International USA, which has its own action page condemning the violence and repression over the elections. Amnesty International says it is important for people to keep Iran in the public spotlight until it ends restrictions on freedom of expression and association, which includes the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas.

Bloggers and members of the media are asked to contribute to the Bloggers Unite for a Free Iran campaign by making it a dominant social media issue once again on June 29. Others are asked to participate by leaving supportive comments on participating blogs, sharing links to posts about this important effort, and/or by turning all avatars green in honor of the campaign. Bloggers who have already posted on the subject are asked to add their links to the BloggersUnite.org event page and post again on June 29.

Monday, June 22

Serving Bert: Lessons In Customer Service

"Always remember that what might seem like an annoying inconvenience can often be the platform for a long-term positive experience." — Richard Becker

When my daughter requested that Bert, from the long-running television show Sesame Street, join us for breakfast, I had a choice. I could grumble away the request with all sorts of "good" excuses. Or, I could accommodate by setting the table for three instead of two.

I chose the latter, propping up the miniature Bert on a chair twenty times his size. And why not? Bert didn't need much more than a place setting, silverware, and a paper napkin.

As strange as it may sound, minimal effort can produce maximum results. Instead of reinforcing proper table manners, imposing some meaningless rule like "no stuffed toys at the table," or working to hurry my daughter along without "distractions," the novelty of having Bert join us for breakfast set a positive day in motion. It changes the conversation.

It made her happy, and happy children are much more likely to finish breakfast quickly, easily, and neatly. More than that, her happiness was infectious.

It's also a lesson in customer service. Consider the Kinkos employee who invested his time in telling us how couldn't help while my team member and I stood waiting in line or the OfficeDepot employee who seemed put out after he had brought out an office chair. While neither incident is really worth going into detail, it does provide a subtle and all-too-common contrast.

Neither employee risked losing anything, other than a few seconds to service. The first could have looked behind the counter to see if the order was in rather than take an equal amount of time to explain why he couldn't help. The second could have been less concerned about whether I had chosen the wrong retrieval card (it turned out that another employee had mixed two sets together). Instead, their inconvenience was infectious.

Not so much for me, as much as other customers, especially at OfficeDepot. One of the other customers waiting in line chimed up that "he might need to sit in a chair for as long as he has been waiting for one." Then another customer was also quick to express how she felt pushed off while the employee finished with me. And with each passing comment, the employee seemed less happy to be there.

As for me, I had no complaints. Bert, earlier, had finished his pretend breakfast. And my daughter ate all her Honey Nut Cheerios. It goes to show you, customer service is like that. We often have an opportunity to decide which moments in life are annoying inconveniences or opportunities for a long-term positive experience.

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