Six Reasons to Practice Social Media Authenticity

By: Guest | January 19, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Tyler Orchard

The popularization of social media has created two very different environments.

On one hand, social media has produced a world of vast connectivity. Consumers and professionals are linked without boundary. Barriers that once limited engagement are overcome with new ways to network.

Social media has offered people unconfined opportunities to tap into conversations that were once hidden.

On the other hand, the technology simultaneously provides others with a shrouded veil behind which they can hide. Social media has offered more power in the form of selection, engagement, and response.

It is possible to seamlessly transition between both of these worlds at our convenience. We can operate in two elements that contrast one another so vigorously it almost seems impossible they were borne from the same revolutionary technology.

Social media promotes transparency, authenticity, and openness. However, these fundamentals have, and continue to be, questioned.

There are two types of practitioners who use social media to achieve a certain objective.

The following represent the two ends of the spectrum:

Dark Operators

  • They maintain a one-way conversation.
  • Content is meticulously filtered: Negative posts are ignored or deleted.
  • The level of engagement is zero.
  • Communication is in the form of talking points with limited authenticity.
  • They create and manage a buffer between themselves and their audience (consumers/media).

Clear Operators

  • They thrive on two-way conversation.
  • Their actions are based on transparency, truth, and authenticity.
  • All content is free, open, and welcomed.
  • The level of engagement is constantly pushed forward.
  • They connect with their audience on any issues or topic.

These two types of operators are readily identified and there is no confusion between their characteristics and actions. But transition between these two corporate “personalities” is alive and well.

We have witnessed social media being leveraged in a way that serves the user’s own personal interests. At times they step behind the “buffer” that has been created. Whether it is only selecting positive topics on which to engage people, dodging inquiries from the media, or clouding transparency to shirk responsibility, social media is continually used to shape and reshape engagement conditions on individual terms.

Redefining PR Transparency

It is imperative the power over content and engagement social media can offer does not lure us with its temptation of ease and simplicity. These shrouded actions have the ability to destabilize the strongest corporate reputations.

Transparency and open engagement on negative or positive issues defines who you are. These characteristics aren’t always followed, but need to be stated and rigorously implemented by PR professionals.

Six Reasons to Practice Social Media Authenticity and Openness

  1. Authenticity shapes a corporate reputation built on personable outreach.
  2. Content filtration undermines consumer engagement and won’t go unnoticed.
  3. Ignoring inquiries does not make an issue go away and at times can ignite a revolt.
  4. Transparency strengthens consumer loyalty and breeds media respect.
  5. Unconditional engagement builds networks that can be leveraged when needed.
  6. Transitioning between Dark and Clear for personal gain represents a business decision that is perceived as self-serving and isolated.

True and unconditional transparency in the business world scares us. The allure of control over content and engagement should be vehemently resisted.

As practitioners, we should embrace authentic transparency and openness. It only serves to benefit us in the long-term. Surrendering certain ethical characteristics in exchange for a short-term (perceived) benefit is misleading.

Is true social media transparency something that is actually needed? Or should clients/brands reserve the right to exercise control over their social media presence and engagement?

Maybe absolute transparency is just a coveted ideal.

Tyler Orchard is a Toronto-based director of communications and PR in the political world. He holds a masters degree from the University of Guelph and is a life-long student of social media and PR. His views are strictly his own. Follow him on Twitter @tylerorchard or find him on LinkedIn. He blogs at Talking Points.

  • jenzings

    Good post. I think my only quibble is with “all content is free, open, and welcomed.” The word “all” is a strong one, and I think there are plenty of cases where we’ve seen it’s entirely expected for a brand to filter content. A top of mind example was the recent Lowe’s/All American Muslim show debacle.

    Lowe’s, citing “social media authenticity,” left some really horrible, degenerate comments up on its Facebook page. In my humble opinion, leaving that trash talk up did nothing to encourage engagement, and it damaged the brand. There’s a middle ground of common sense that has to be considered–and yes, in some cases, that means filtering content.

    While I appreciate the post and agree with most of what you have written, I do think that drawing such clear distinctions between good/bad can lead the less experienced communicators out there to take the path Lowe’s did. They thought they were being transparent, but ended up compounding a social media sh*tstorm they were largely responsible for creating in the first place.

    • @jenzings Thanks for the comment, Jen. You raise some good points in regards to where complete, unfiltered transparency can take you. Without delving into the Lowe’s situation too much, I would like to highlight that the two examples above (Dark and Clear) were intended to represent the two ends of the spectrum. My assumption is that many companies land somewhere in between those too extremes. Also, good/bad are not solely attached to those to spectrums either. However, you definitely raise considerable evidence to support the argument that common sense decisions should prevail in certain situations. Thanks again, Jen!

    • @jenzings Thanks for the comment, Jen. You raise some good points in regards to where complete, unfiltered transparency can take you. Without delving into the Lowe’s situation too much, I would like to highlight that the two examples above (Dark and Clear) were intended to represent the two ends of the spectrum. My assumption is that many companies land somewhere in between those two extremes. Also, good/bad are not solely attached to those two spectrums either. However, you definitely raise considerable evidence to support the argument that common sense decisions should prevail in certain situations. Thanks again, Jen!

  • We actually had a webinar today called Humanize: Create a People Centric Organization. I don’t understand why it is so hard for organizations to just be real – it’s people behind every piece of communication. Why is it so hard? The approval by committee syndrome, perhaps? I don’t know, but you outline so excellent points here, Tyler. Thanks!!

    • @Lisa Gerber Thanks for the compliment, Lisa. I definitely would have liked to be part of that webinar. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it comes back to the decision by committee syndrome or maybe even GroupThink and the apprehension towards being vulnerable in such as vast and unforgiving space? There seems to be a fear that is ever-present when you talk about social media and transparency.

  • Another transparency post. Yawn. #beingnaughty

  • Another social media “authenticity” post. Yawn. #beingnaughty

    • @danperezfilms At least you were still awake at the end of it to post a comment! I’ll take it as a win. Cheers, Dan!

  • NancyCawleyJean

    Absolutely loved this post. Although in the corporate world, that authenticity is not always approved by the powers that be, unfortunately.

    • @NancyCawleyJean Thanks for the comment and the compliment, Nancy. You’re definitely right, sometimes it just isn’t possible because of certain circumstances and restrictions.

  • So true; you can sit back and blast away but since you can’t get your hands on me I can use that level of anonymity to act any way I want to.

    However, and just like in real life, at some point your true colors will appear. Transparency and your true intentions should always be apparent.

    Social has provided a platform for a certain segment who weren’t particularly ‘social’ in the first place to all of a sudden having a voice. They might tend to act or say things they normally wouldn’t in real life.

    And that’s all I have to say about that.

    • @bdorman264 Thanks for the comment, Bill! You’re spot on. There is this unique level of anonymity that provides people with a bit more confidence to act or say things that they normally wouldn’t in non-digital situations. Not to mention, people who operate within the social media space can readily identify when a person or brand is acting in a self-serving way. Your comment made me think about alcohol and how it gives us a bit more confidence to do and say things that we aren’t normally used to…maybe the same principal applies here. Thanks again, Bill.

      • @Tyler Orchard But I can talk that way under the influence because it makes me much better looking too…………:)

        • @bdorman264 Oh, so, so true!

        • @Tyler Orchard@bdorman264 I have only one thing to say about that: single malt scotch. And wine gini dietrich

        • @Tyler Orchard@bdorman264gini dietrich Oops. that was two things:)

        • @KDillabough@bdorman264gini dietrich Single malt and wine – the perfect mix! That’s bound to get anyone speaking freely.

  • etelligence

    “We have witnessed social media being leveraged in a way that serves the user’s own personal interests.”

    This is one fact that I have been wrestling with frequently as of late. Lately it seems that EVERYTHING being written pushes an agenda or shines a positive light on the author. I have a guest post coming up here in the next week in which I outline why professionals with prior experience online and with a basic understanding of marketing / copywriting / design concepts do better work in social media (Designing a Facebook page maybe, writing effective copy for it, targeting your campaign). It’s quite self serving, but I wrote it in response to a handful of bloggers who think that all that stuff is worthless because Facebook has only been open to the public for 4 years (I know, right?). Of course, they weren’t doing stuff online 4 years ago, so it’s self serving on their part to try to discount experience.

    Here’s another good one: I wrote a blog post that recommended aspiring bloggers to submit articles to a news outlet to get a taste of writing under an editorial team, and stressed the importance of good grammar and spelling in publishing. A reader said I was wrong because some people have English as a second language, and it shouldn’t count against them that they have bad spelling or grammar. Of course, I have published under an editor at multiple outlets, and the reader was French. Our bias was conflicting, but I couldn’t even comprehend how someone could be so biased as to oppose advocating good spelling and grammar. Or maybe a study about how reading Fiction increases your IQ 🙂 , someone who doesn’t read fiction would never have reported those findings on their blog. It amounts to saying “Ok, people who read fiction are smarter, but I don’t, so go ahead and take a few points off of my perceived IQ”. I may not disclose my bias every time like Gini did in that article, but I’m completely self aware of it, and I try to cut it out of my writing as much as possible.

    Professional Blogging can sometimes be summed up like this: What I do is better than what you do, so by default I am more qualified. If there is a clear reason why you may be more qualified, I will spin it as a catch 22. Example: Read my upcoming thesis about how members of Mensa have a higher rate of axe murderers among their ranks!

    • @etelligence Thanks for the comment! That definitely sounds like an interesting thesis. You raise some good points especially the idea of pushing an agenda. There seems to be a lot of underlying reasons to utilize social media. Coming back full circle, it’s about being in the social media space to engage others not to self-promote etc.

      Thanks again, I look forward to the guest posts in the future!

  • Like everything new that becomes old, social media has evolved. The aftermath, this post-social media revolution, is a time for dissection ala yours to occur where the pieces are put back together in other ways.

    Do you feel the change today versus four years ago (pre-FB)? Confidence has suffered, and peeps are turning to those who’ve been around for 2-4 years or longer doing this; are they really the experts?

    Who is authentic, transparent, trusting and genuine? I think I wrote something for you, @Lisa Gerber on risk to authenticity awhile back…I had a major concern that analytics would spoil authenticity, and I believe that to be true. (Oh, dear, I’m relaunching my site to bring in that cursed word.)

    Thoughtful writings, Tyler.

    • @Soulati | PR Thank you very much, Jayme! You’re completely right, there has been a shift that has occurred over time and it now offers us a chance to look back and analyze how and what has changed. I think that was the best part of your comment, “who is authentic, transparent, trusting and genuine?” – I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to define who these people and brands are. I had never thought about how analytics could re-shape authenticity, but I think you are spot on. Brands are driven by analytics, not “true” engagement sometimes.

      Thanks again, Jayme! I look forward to the relaunch of your site!

  • belllindsay

    Excellent post @Tyler Orchard – what you’ve spelled out here is vitally important for *all* participants/professionals in SM, not just PR. Well said, sir. 🙂

  • kennettkwok

    Very interesting post. I could see that happening with some small companies that promote themselves via contests / discounts / refer a friend promotions without really engaging their followers. I’ve been following them for some time and it begins to feel like spam. Aside from all their promotions, the companies do very little to build relationships with their existing and potential customers, and I don’t believe they are getting any good results.

    On that note, I’m really curious about any companies that are being “good operators”. Care to share?

    • @kennettkwok Thanks for the comment, Kennett. You’re completely right, when social media is used solely for outbound marketing or self-promotion it feels like spam. Those are the companies or brands who have jumped into the social media space just because. They see it as a free marketing tool and that is it – a flawed view in my opinion.

      Take a look at dogfishbeer – they are a microbrewery in the US. They have 75,000 followers. Look at how they engage people. It isn’t all about themselves or selling their beer. That is a secondary objective. Also, steamwhistle is another good example. I do love beer.

      There are a lot of companies and brands who are great at engaging their publics. They have embraced the idea of investing in their community.

      Thanks again, Kennett!

      • kennettkwok

        @Tyler Orcharddogfishbeersteamwhistle Thanks for the prompt reply Tyler! I’m not a big fan of beer myself, but it would be interesting to see how these two companies run their social media campaigns. Thanks for sharing. I’ll update you via twitter after following them for a couple of weeks! Thank you Tyler.

  • byronfernandez

    @Tyler Orchard Always enjoy hearing other PR pros who “get It” … 😉

    Particularly liked how you broke it down between “Dark” and “Clear” operators, and how each style affects others in the digital space.

    Clearly (pun intended), us cute and snuggly PR folk evangelize openness, transparency and genuine human interaction. Denying those things will be a resounding controversy insofar as there will always be those who cannot or will not acknowledge that business is increasingly built on trust and relationships.

    And, quite frankly, people who scream Privacy, and shirk accountability for the things they say or do are unable to reconcile what Amber Naslund calls that “crunchiness,” that cognitive dissonance.

    You nail it: Down with the shrouds, off with the veils. We can and must continue to challenge others to peel off the cloak, tear down the walls and begin recognizing the Human element of this industry and the world at large.

    THAT’s our job: to not just change and convert minds, but Hearts too…

    • @byronfernandez Awesome comment, Byron! I appreciate it. It’s an incredible clear concept: business transparency, openness and willingness to invest in your community for reasons that transcend just sales and marketing equates to a better and more sustainable business model, increased engagement and it builds a brand that is stronger and more reliable over time. However, there are too many examples of brands and companies just wanting to be *in* the space rather than use it effectively. There is a new protocol for businesses that leverage social media as a fundamental tool in their outreach. It is simple, yet continually ignored. We need to re-shape the traditional thinking that is so grounded in quantitative ROI and sales. Social media has humanized the business world and how we interact with one another. Embrace it.

      Love your passion! Thanks, Byron.

      • Byron Fernandez

        @Tyler Orchard A+ for use of transcend. One of my favorite words since college 😉

  • I was really moved by the succinct summary about the key factors around effective social media today. When I read ” Transparency strengthens consumer loyalty and breeds media respect”, it caused me to think of what ‘social’ all alone really is.

    I thought you know what; since transparency strengthens loyalty and breeds respect in real life, why not in the digital media?

    Good stuff @Tyler Orchard


    Michael Besson

    • @MichaelBesson Thank you very much for the comment, Michael. I admire your passion for this topic. I actually hadn’t thought of the similarity between digital media and our own personal lives, but you said it perfectly.

  • Hi Tyler,

    You make some great points here, however I’m on the side that true transparency is a phantom, it doesn’t exist, and we don’t really want it to.

    Deleting negative comments? No, I don’t support it. But transparency includes transparency into your own motives, not just allowing your customers voice to be heard. Companies are not transparent, and if they were, if their motives and methods were fully on display, most of us would not want to follow them and wouldn’t be attracted to them.

    Too often, I think we confuse transparency with being a good web citizen. Please, let’s all be good citizens, engage in civil discourse (even when we feel otherwise), but I don’t believe we will see full transparency, and frankly, I don’t really want to.

    This is a different take on transparency, but its one I believe the industry needs to discuss.

    • Byron Fernandez

      @Wittlake@Tyler Orchard I admire your candor and perspective Eric.

      Utter transparency does not give individuals nor companies license to abuse the power and influence given to us by the People.

      Great point about the distinction between course transparency and being a good web citizen. “Netiquette…” 😉

      Voice of reason and tact shouldn’t be exclusive to a PR pro’s arsenal, it’s something we all can learn to embrace. 10% what we say, 90% How we say it. Nothing beats good manners and treating others with respect and dignity – even when their lizard brains are in full-throttle.

      Recently I’ve felt tired, angry, worn out and impatient in leading our agency. I throw the excuse of “I’m just a punk kid…only 26.” But age has nothing to do with fortitude or temperance, and sometimes we have to love or be gracious with others, even when they don’t deserve it. Because often those who are angry and unyielding that need kindness the most.

      Thanks for sharing another important voice/angle that needed to be expressed, Eric

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