Social media: freedom at last for communication professionals?

Planning to integrate social media into your marketing strategy can be a daunting experience. Craig Pearce talks about the good and the ugly that social brings with it and how that applies to communication professionals.

Social media is an antidote to the nanny state, offering a freedom that we are increasingly being deprived of. With its virtually non-existent rules, ever-evolving etiquettes, yet-to-be-determined legal precedents and myriad of platforms – which offer opportunities for expression, explication and showboating never known before – social media frontiers are being extended each passing moment.

This is a view touched upon on by John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs, who has bemoaned seeing freedoms curtailed for the sake of occupational health and safety. Examples include children not being allowed to play physical games at school, no matter how seemingly benign, or playgrounds only being permitted to be constructed using certain equipment and after expensive risk analysis.

An extension of this is the political correctness applied to situations such as children’s sport, whereby coaches of young children are chastised if they answer questions about a match’s score, rather than answering along the lines of, “The score doesn’t matter, it’s about participating and having fun.” (Of course this is true, but if the kid asks the question, I think there is a safe middle ground here which is not condescending to the children.)

Social media as freedom

It’s hard not to agree with Roskam’s assertion that social media offers freedom, though perhaps there is worth in the observation, too, that “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”.

This is not just a throwaway line. Because freedom means being able to act like an idiot, a bully and a saboteur, just as it means being able to behave in a manner useful to society and/or simply to have some harmless fun.

We could talk at length about the cloak of invisibility social media offers those who choose to go down this path. How many times have we heard of cyberbullies and/or those who make comments whilst not choosing to make their identity known, potentially causing all sorts of unhappiness, yet running from taking responsibility for what they have contributed to?

Is this the sort of freedom we want?

The same sort of thing can and does happen offline, too.  But offline doesn’t have the same viral, audience multiplication characteristics:

  • People can learn of an opinion, accusation, rumour etc more quickly and in greater numbers online than they can offline
  • Social proof – the credibility of numbers. An implication of this is that if a piece of information is shared often enough online, then by its sheer proliferation it is assumed it must be true, when clearly this isn’t necessarily the case.

It is also true that many online environments can have a moderating effect on information, calming the waters of spurious assertions.

And it is similarly true, and here we have a wonderful example of social media freedom, that the information posted online can be curated by those choosing to share it. This can mean adding further (perhaps qualifying) insights and opinion, scrutinising what is being shared and, ultimately, accelerating a dialogue on the topic in a much more expansive (if not necessarily in a more intelligent) manner than could have occurred offline.

Freedom at last: implications for communicators

For communicators, social media offers wonderful opportunities to share information, enhance reputations and build relationships. And it can help mitigate the impact of crises, through issue identification, information sharing and having third party advocates assist in the application of social proof.

Of course, when it comes to crises, social media has made many an organisational crisis worse, too, due to the number of people who can very quickly pick up on a piece of information (or disinformation, as the case may be) and share it.

Another major challenge for communicators are the proliferation of social media platforms which can be utilised. And it’s not one size fits all. One piece of information articulated in the same way cannot simply be replicated across all platforms. All this interaction requires not just strategic insights, technical skills and creativity, but increased intellectual bandwidth and budget.

Really, even at the best of times it’s hard to know to know whether social is a bane or a boost to professional communication. It’s certainly complicated it. And, as we all know, it isn’t going anywhere; so best we figure out excellent solutions and be ever open to a rapid evolution to the approaches we choose to apply.

Craig Pearce
BY Craig Pearce ON 19 June 2015
Craig Pearce is an experienced corporate communication practitioner, and blogs at Public relations and managing reputation.