Gini Dietrich

Social Media Transparency

By: Gini Dietrich | October 7, 2009 | 

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post all week, but I’m a bit behind. I guess that’s what happens when you sleep all weekend, instead of being a responsible adult. I’m told I needed it. Now I don’t need to sleep for another three months.

Not the point. The point is, the Wall Street Journal last week wrote a story about entrepreneurs hiring outside consultants to help them with their social media. Then Beth Harte wrote a blog post about having someone else tweet for her during the PR 2.0 chat on Twitter.

And it all has me thinking.

For the past two years, I’ve been saying that the point of social media is to have one-on-one relationships with your customers, not to have someone doing it for you. I know this philosophy eventually works me out of a job, unless I can continue to stay ahead of the curve and teach people how to have those conversations using the newest tools available. Which, by-the-way,  is the strategy.

Why is this different, the above mentioned articles ask, than writing a speech for the President, ghost-writing a column for your CEO, or writing a review about a product you received, free-of-charge?

The difference is this: All of those examples have an approval process. They all have “canned” PR messages. The person whose name goes on each of the pieces has the opportunity to review, make changes to fit their own voice, and post as their own.

Social media is instant. It’s immediate and there isn’t an approval process. There isn’t time. It happens in real-time. It’s not your slick marketing brochure. It’s not canned PR messages. If someone is pretending to be the CEO on any of the networks, people eventually are going to find out.

That being said, the person  (or people) handling social media doesn’t necessarily have to be the CEO. But it has to be someone who has the ability to speak on behalf of the organization without having to get approvals. If that’s your internal communication department, great. If it’s your external PR firm, great. But you have to give up control to that person(s) in order to be transparent and authentic.

People want to have relationships with the people who work inside organizations. That’s why, when companies do it really well, people are more inclined to work with certain brands more than others.

So think about it less on using the tools, and more about who you want representing your brand. Who is the best person to turn your detractors into buzz agents? Who is the best person to build your community, intuitively? Who is the best person to work with your brand ambassadors and turn them into referral network? Who is the best person who will be as passionate about your business as the stakeholders, online and offline?

If that’s an external consultant, expert, or company and you’re willing to give up control, that’s great. But be ready to let them do their jobs and ask for forgiveness if they have to make a real-time decision. And be transparent about it – let people know they’re talking to someone who doesn’t work within your four walls. It can work. If done correctly and honestly.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • as i noted just yesterday on @charlottehrb’s blog post, i think ‘ghosting’ is a “necessary reality” for some orgs. i agree with the points you raise here Gini. and yes, this would indeed work if: (a) orgs give up control to the social media savvy pros who would be doing the ghosting and (b) are transparent about it. thanks for the share (you saved me having to blog about it 😉 autom

  • LOL autom! You can still blog about it!

    I think there are some companies who should NOT be doing social media themselves. @Rieva wrote a great blog post a couple of weeks ago about why most companies shouldn’t blog – not everyone can write.

    It’s all so new and we all have to figure it out. But what we do know is that Americans have lost trust in corporations and that these tools allow us access to the top levels so now we expect it. Having someone else do that, with approval processes and canned PR messages, does NOT work.

  • I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this work successfully where the company hiring-out is transparent about who is actually talking. We’ve definitely seen it fail (Whole Foods), but are there any case studies you can share where this has worked to the benefit of the company (and they were up-front about the fact it was their PR firm talking on their behalf)? I agree that it may be possible to do, but I’m curious as to whether that possibility has actually become a reality.

  • It always baffles me when I read about people hiring external consultants to be their voice through social media. Don’t get me wrong, consultants have a role to play, particularly when it comes to what social media tools to use and how to best use them. When building communities and asking those communities to trust in what you do how do you achieve that without an authentic voice behind the message, be that message 140 characters, a podcast or a blog. Building value, trust is a long process whose weight is much more impactful when it comes from an authentic voice inside the organization whom ever that may be.

    Grat post… Thanks for your your thoughts.


  • I think this might be the post that really gets to the crux of the issue — it’s not about who does it as long as you’re honest and you’re well aware of what the consequences are of your choice as to who will represent your brand.

    Like I said in comment to Beth’s post, if an organization chooses to have its PR or marketing firm step in to do the work it’s missing out on a huge opportunity to learn by doing. What if your company has to drop that external agency in crunch time? How will your company pick up where your agency left off?

    Maybe there’s some middle ground in which companies can have their external agencies do front-end work and teach while doing, so the companies will eventually be able to take over the efforts, or at least have a deeper understanding of strategies, value in involvement, etc. Maybe a company and its agency can split responsibilities and work together to hone synchronicity in the brand message?

    I don’t know. But I do know you’re right in that whatever choice an organization makes, it has to be honest with its customer base and understand that it cannot go nuts if it chooses to have an agency do its brand work for it and a message gets misconstrued in the outreach efforts.

  • Lois – I’ve not seen it work well, either. Which is why I still advocate having someone within the four walls doing it. BUT, take Vistage, for example. I know enough about the business and its inner workings (probably more than some who work there) that I, personally, could probably do the social media on your behalf. But the cost would be astronomical and I’d have to have a more than once a week call with Rafael to stay in line with strategy. Probably not an ideal situation, but it could work.

    Ljuba – Your point goes to my next blog post: What happens when your social media brand leaves your company or, if it’s an external force, they part ways? Lots to consider here and people aren’t thinking about the big picture, but thinking about how to implement immediately without fully understanding.

    T – To my point I just made to Ljuba and to go with what I was saying to Lois. We are the AOR for Vistage communication and we’ve split the social media responsibilities. We monitor, we listen, we recommend, we brainstorm…and they DO.

  • Gini – great post. I’m still thinking hard about Beth’s blog which was also excellent and thought provoking.

    I recently helped a friend start her own blog. She’s a VP at a niche printing company and wants to use her blog to help with customer retention. She definitely has a voice and a style but would never say she has the skills to write often, deal with photos and videos or really understand the technical side of creating and managing a blog.

    Check her blog out:

    I helped her set it up and help her write her entries. The final posts are her idea and have her personality but I doubt without professional help she’d ever get one off the ground.

    She’s the most qualified in her company to start social media but is a long way off from being really proficient. I’d like to think that as long as she drives the content creation, drives customers to her blog, manages the comments and directly engages people, she’ll end up doing fine. As I look around the franchise industry, I see a ton of people like her that really need this kind of help.

    I don’t think you should ever just abdicate, though. Turning it over to someone else and hoping it will produce results sounds like a recipe for disaster.

  • I think we need to be careful about saying there is a right way/wrong way to “do” SM. I completely agree that if a twitter or blog profile is positioned as it’s the CEO (or any specific individual) then that individual better be the creator of the content. Don’t lie to me by making me think that the CEO is sharing thoughts, when it’s really an ad agency or PR agency.

    That said, while transparency is important; I think it’s authenticity that matters most. The look, feel, hear and touch should all align. If a CEO is blogging, but struggles as a writer, I don’t mind if she shares her ideas with a writer who makes it clear and readable – so long the message in its essence is the CEOs. Twitter is a little different, because it’s much more about a conversation – there’s a give and take. If I think I’m talking to the CEO and it turns out I’m talking to her writer, then I feel cheated.

    One final point, as we enter a whole new future, traditional business paradigms needs to catch up. Too often we think in terms of “internal/external” or “employee/outside vendor.” In the 21st century we need to start thinking more in terms of “capabilities.” The business that accesses and harnesses the greatest capabilities within an effective strategy will win – whether those capabilities are employees, consultants or anything else.

  • TS and Doug, both – GREAT comments! I do think you can ghost-write for executives (we do it all the time), as long as they spend some time reviewing and making sure it’s in their voice. But you’re right…if I think I’m tweeting with Jack Welch, only to find out it’s some PR person, I’m going to feel cheated. It’s really about honesty and letting people know what you’re doing. Set the expectation and do what you say you’re going to do and no one will feel cheated.

  • Gini, I’ve been wondering when you would come around to this POV. Most companies are completely unprepared to handle conversations and there is a real need for outside resources to do that for them. That said, it does not have to be as all or nothing as you paint it. I like to divide the efforts into proactive and reactive. Proactive is the work required to find new influentials, to engage in conversations with them, to send out interesting updates based upon a knowledge of the subject area… Reactive is just that, reacting to inquires, issues, negative comments, bad press. The proactive person can serve as the watchdog and then route the tweet or blog post to an identified person or persons within the organization to handle it. Tools like CoTweet are good for that. In many ways, this is a perfect role for PR agencies. Now go out and sell some of it.

  • Control is the operative word here. That is the toughest thing for people to relinquish to their communications team. I agree,if I am writing a speech or brochure, I have the time for the editing process, in fact, I want enough time so that the client feels good about the end product. But in social media, it has to be quick. My hope is that our clients trust us to represent them, that we know their key messages and if we are out there representing their brand, whether through social media strategies or traditional communications strategies, we are doing so with their best interests in mind. We are there to protect and enhance your business, social media strategies are just one way.

  • Les Lent


    Great post! I have been having this conversation with a lot of people recently and it looks like it boils down to what people, and their companies, are trying to accomplish with SM. There doesn’t seem to be a one size fits all answer.

    I can’t imagine Lance Armstrong for example, with over 2 million followers, using a ghost poster. While he may not be the absolute best example due to his celebrity status I’d be willing to bet he has been able to use Twitter to move the dial for his cause, LAF, even though many of his posts are purely personal, and at times a bit random. I would also venture to say people like knowing what makes the guy tick. Speaking strictly for myself I started to follow him during the TdF this year as a fan of the sport (ok… more like rabid cycling geek). After a couple of weeks I became more interested in the LAF cause and have made donations and followed other simialr stories and causes as a result.

    It seems like SM can give give people the best of both worlds but the real draw is, to your point, the instant feed back and “peek behind the curtain” feel of reading posts by real people. Not real people speaking on behalf of companies or their CEOs. Over time however the people who post their own random (and not so random) thoughts may out last the ones pushing tweets etc. via a personal SM Czar.

  • Les – Lance Armstrong…sigh…I mean, what? Totally off topic, but you need to meet some of my Twitter friends who also are rabid cycling geeks. We share our stats with one another daily – @CesLSU, @jlipschultz, @ryanknapp, @tamcdonald. You’re absolutely right, though. Can you imagine even someone like me, without celebrity status, started having someone tweet for me? You’d know. Instantly. And you’d feel cheated. Or, maybe you wouldn’t. But you’d know it wasn’t me.

    Abbie – I know you’re one firm who has been able to help clients with this by doing it for them. Like Greg says, I still need to come fully to that POV, but I am willing to say there are ways to make it happen.

    Greg – The way we split it is sort of the same way. We set strategy, we set the goals, we set the benchmarks, we listen, we brainstorm, we recommend…the client DOES. It’s a great split and works almost like you recommend above.

  • Gini,

    All of the previous comments are valid. Here is my 2 cents worth on this. New users to social media are afraid and really don’t know how to get started and what to say. So it is my feeling we start them out by teaching them how and then once they are ready to leave the nest – we encourage them to fly on their own. The best source of new business is and old client that says, “They taught me all I needed to know and now I can do it myself. They can do the same for you.”

    At the Life Service Network conference day today, someone asked me about this. They have a PR firm that wants to use them as their beta client so they can start offering canned blog posts to over organizations that work with senior citizens. I had to tell them, it sounds more like spamming potential clients than real conversations and knowledge sharing to build relationships. After all, isn’t that really what social media is “A gathering at the local store, barbershop, bar, etc. where people are sharing ideas and trying to help each other.” I think of it that way and having a PR firm do it for you, takes ‘you’ out of the relationship.

    As I said – just my 2 cents worth on the subject.

  • Rusty Speidel

    Hard to add much more to all the great comments other than to reiterate what Gini has so eloquently stated…if you set expectations, meet them every day, own the responsbility of consistency and availability, and then do what you say you’re going to do, I think you can have anyone manifest that for you with the tools. Comes back to another thing we all harp in–you have to have a brand plan the extends beyond personnel changes into the strategy and tactics you will use to articate that brand vision.

  • Gini – I got here late, and all the good comments are taken. Damn.

    I’ll say this though – organizations will continue to do things that add value to their bottom line – short, mid and long term. I think we are too early in the game to be able to say exactly what does work in balancing the long and the short term in the use of social media.

    Eventually though, there won’t be any special technical skill to use social media tools (there really isn’t now), and the choice will be driven by ROI.

    When everybody figures out how to use the tools (they will), the only discussion we’ll be having is what has the higher return? Which begs the question – shouldn’t we be having that conversation now?

    So my question back to the group here is this: what is going to give a company a higher ROI – an employee or a consultant?

  • I think you’re right about transparency, obviously. I also think it’s important that whoever is doing the ghost-blogging — internal or external — really understands the company values, and communicates in a way that is consistent with them and thus authentic.

    I don’t see any reason why a good external consultant should not communicate authentically on behalf of an organization, under these circumstances.

  • Jean – Love your two cents. Thanks for sharing that very recent story!

    Rusty and Steve – You just wrote my next two blog posts: How to transcend personnel changes and which has the higher ROI. On the first, it’s pretty complicated as I’ve seen brands change overnight (@ColonelTribune, for instance) because the person who is the face leaves. On the second, it HAS to start at the top of the organization. If the CEO and his/her executive team isn’t bought in, or participating themselves, it won’t matter who is doing it. This is no different than any other business growth tool – it has to have buy-in.

    Paul – This goes back to your blog post day before yesterday. This really isn’t any different than a reporter being sent a product to review and writing about it. The key is just telling your readers/audience how you came about getting to where you are…set the expectations and deliver.

    For those of you who missed Paul’s blog post on this, find it here:

  • Great article, Gina. I see a lot of folks hire firms to do this stuff for them and think they are doing social media. I disagree. I don’t think you are doing social media until you do it personally. If you keep social media at arms length, you can never get the pulse and in my opinion that is a tactical mistake than can lead to missed strategic opportunity. If you want to fully leverage the poser of social media, you have to really understand it, and the only way to really understand it is to do it yourself. No substitute.

    I don’t mind people getting advice, but often they get bad advice from a consultant that wants to create a dependent relationship. Get advice, then do it yourself.

    Thanks! Bret

  • This was a great article for a couple of reasons…as mentioned above most “newbies” are tentative until they get their feet wet and most do that through those who are more savvy in social media. I do agree though that Social Media begins when the client starts the conversation and continues it directly.

    Transparency is the key here and in the times that I have coordinated social media outreach for my clients it has been in an effort to create and then enhance the discussion between them and their intended audience…from there they have the ability to either take this initial “footprint” and run with it (sorry about the pun) or continue to utilize the services provided to them based on internal comfort and budget levels.

    Thanks for the post Gini. Andy

  • Great post… I’ve been wondering about transparency in social media, especially since reading “FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials” (, which has sparked similar discussion.

    Representing one of your clients on Twitter for example can be a challenge, but I think there are ways to go about it that can be a transparent collaborative effort. One of my clients, for instance, allows our firm access to their Twitter account to help with the research aspect… finding appropriate industry members to follow and relevant tweets to respond to. However, the client maintains the relationships and tweets themselves. This can present an issue though that you touch upon of real-time interaction, but so far it seems to be a good compromise.

    One helpful aspect for transparency is highlighting the difference between your Twitter name and the actual name. While the Twitter name can be the company, the real name can be the person behind the tweets, thereby making it more personal. There is also some choice around the picture. Do you put up the company logo or your personal picture? One of my clients has struck a good balance using the company name as their twitter name, but their own name for the account, with a personal photo of the person actually doing the tweeting.

    Lots to consider as more and more companies get involved in social media and turn to their PR agencies for help and guidance. Thanks for posting!

  • Gina,

    I think that the distinction you make b/w directly connecting vs. having to pass through an approval screen is quite important… it captures the concern about what kinds of social media participation is ‘authentic’. If you tweet for someone else/a company yet have to have everything approved, you’re not in the conversation (and neither is the person you are representing).

    This point was really hit home to me last month… I tweeted a prominent colleague about a connection between something s/he wrote and something I wrote… mostly to give her a heads up and an opportunity to take the conversation further if s/he wanted to. I wasn’t expecting a response on twitter; though one would have been nice, my expectations are pretty loose. …
    A week later, I got an extremely formal email from this colleague’s assistant, thanking me for my tweet and telling me that the colleague him/herself was “unable to reply to the tweets s/he received”. It was like a form letter. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or not… but let me just say, it took our ‘conversation’ nowhere.

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  • Bret – I agree with you. I liken this to email. There are very few people who don’t answer their own email.

    Meredith – I think what you’re posing here is tomorrow’s blog post. I agree with the company vs. personal brand, but I think what’s even more interesting about what you have to say is the FTC guidelines around blogging.

    CV – I don’t even know what to say to that. It’s like Avis responding to my tweet THREE MONTHS later with an apology letter via snail mail.

  • My favorite line: “So think about it less on using the tools, and more about who you want representing your brand.”

    This is a great point – so many companies are trying to “get on social media” just for the sake of doing it, and they don’t quite realize that it’s simply another communication channel, with all the privileges and responsibilities that go with it. True, you CAN hire someone to do it for you, but you’re right – you need to be completely transparent about it.

    It’d probably be more effective if companies would simply take one of their current brand ambassadors from an offline channel and give them the task of experimenting with the social media channel (certainly with hired help to show them the ropes if necessary).

    Good thoughts, thanks.

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