Employees on Social Media: Have Fun Storming the Castle

The following is a true story. Could this still happen in the age of social media? If your company wants to remain competitive, let’s hope not.

Once upon a time, a company was struggling to regain market share. After trouncing all comers for a decade, it lost its punch as new competitors and more exciting products entered the ring.

The entire company was reorganized to focus on marketing. Despite decades of award-winning work, the old advertising agency was let go. A hip new one was hired. Product lines were brought somewhat up to date, but they didn’t function as well as the market leaders. Consequently, they received poor reviews from press and consumers alike.

And what of employees inside the hallowed halls of this once-great company?

The daily grind was pretty grim. Employees coped as best they could with successive reorgs, changes in leadership, mission rewrites, OPEX reductions, and the launch of one new initiative after another. It was hard to generate excitement when every move the company made seemed to lead to a new round of layoffs.

But try they did. At employee meetings, they sat politely as marketing unveiled the latest products and plans. When asked for input, they gave it. Intelligently, clearly, poignantly. They wanted this stuff to work its magic and they were fully invested in its success. But, because they were closest to the front lines (manufacturing, quality, sales, customer service), they also knew it wouldn’t and, like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, they felt obliged to tell the truth before the company threw good money after bad.

What did they get in return?

They were told repeatedly that they didn’t understand all this newfangled marketing because they weren’t the right demographic. They didn’t like the new products because they weren’t the ones who were going to buy and use them.

And the “right demographic”? What did they think of the new products and marketing? They turned away in droves.

Was there a Happily Ever After for this company? Sadly, no. Remember, this is a true story, not a fairy tale.

The only thing that kept this saga from getting any worse was the fact that it took place in the days before social media. Imagine if employees – treated like that – had access to Twitter, Facebook and blogs!

What’s the moral of this story?

Dismissiveness discourages engagement (and encourages mutiny)
What exactly are employees supposed to do with insults, such as, “You don’t understand because you’re not the right demographic?” (A lot of them might think about taking their revenge on Twitter or Facebook or in industry forums.)

Effective marketing is all about relationships. Launching a campaign calls for engaging key stakeholders to help build enthusiasm. It starts inside a company before the very first ad airs on TV or the first tweet goes out. If a company can’t build solid, positive relationships with its own employees – natural allies because they share the same goals – how can it expect to create them in the world, where people are far more suspicious of brand messaging?

And if morale is bad inside a company, it’s only a matter of time before that negativity seeps into the social world where it influences key audiences and customers.

Employees aren’t the “right demographic,” they’re the “first demographic”
Engagement must start inside the gates with internal audiences because they are a company’s ambassadors during good times and bad.

“Your people are your best assets,” notes Christopher Barger in The Social Media Strategist. “In an environment in which trust is a key currency, it is your people and their personalities that will sell an audience on your brand as much as your product.”

In this age of social sharing, even with limited or no budget, a company can still create word of mouth around its products if its social media strategy includes having employees use their expertise and enthusiasm to engage customers.

This is doubly true in a crisis, when employee goodwill is shared in social circles, reinforcing official communications. Effective crisis communication is no longer simply about “putting a coin in the good karma bank in case you need to make a withdrawal,” as crisis experts used to describe it.

Companies that value employees and empower them to engage with audiences in social channels on a regular basis have a host of vocal advocates ready to put their influence to work on behalf of the brand’s reputation when barbarians are at the gate.

It’s important to understand how employees relate (and are related to) your customers
Think about a company that makes toys for toddlers. The employees probably range in age from early-20s to early-70s. Clearly, they are not the target user of the toys they manufacture.

But, do none of these folks have children? Grandchildren? How about parents who buy toys for grandchildren? And cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and professional colleagues they meet at industry conferences, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, employees are customers. And, if they’re not direct consumers, they encounter customers in all walks of life and have the potential to be ambassadors for the brand and influence purchase across networks of family, friends and professional associates.

Companies don’t own their “story” any more
Companies no longer control messaging about their brands, leaders or dirty laundry in social channels. (Just ask Yahoo!)

Sure, companies can restrict access to social platforms on the corporate network and create HR policies that forbid mentioning the company in social channels after work. But brands that want to excel take a different tack.

Christopher Barger recommends “teaching the organization to fish”: “Not every organization or company will empower all of its employees to engage in social networks. All the same, it’s a good idea to build a social media education program for all employees anyway.”

Barger’s approach enables employees to learn everything – from social media platforms to publishing tools and company policy. It also gives employees insight into how the company – both marketing and corporate – shares messages and builds relationships in social circles.

This kind of immersion in social media best practices, based on teaching and trust, goes a long way to building a strong base of employee ambassadors who understand the vision and strategy and are well-versed at engaging with the audiences companies most want to reach.

Companies don’t always know how to build a better mousetrap
“Great leaders…know that if they come up with all the answers, the chances of having anyone else buy into the solution are next to zero,” write Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas in Power Questions. “But if their employees come up with the answer – if they feel ownership of it – there is a good chance it will bear fruit.”

Many social media experts predict that smart companies will create iterative processes that allow feedback from social media fans and followers to inform the design of better and new products. Both consumers and employees are in prime positions to contribute expertise in this scenario.

Some companies are already doing this. So, when an employee figures out a whole new way to use a product, simplify consumers’ lives, solve a problem, streamline a service, or just make customers happier, give that employee a blog. Why restrict access to social media? Heck, let them share their personal story with as many people as possible, and watch how customers get engaged.

Now that gives employees and customers something to tweet about!

Do you have examples of companies that encourage employees to use social media channels? I’d love to hear about them in the Comments.

Is it Okay to Take an Admin Job to Get Your Foot in the Door?

Since today is Admin Professionals Day, I thought I’d address a sensitive question that seasoned PR, marketing and communications folks often hear from recent graduates, looking to get experience in the field:

“Should I take an Admin job to get my foot in the door with an agency or company?”

My answer is a definite “No.”

(This advice comes with the caveat that, even as we climb out of recession, jobs continue to be scarce, so if you desperately need to work and the only option is an Admin position in your industry, take it – and check out the tips at the end of this article.)

My response is never meant to dismiss the role of administrative professionals. They work exceptionally hard, multitasking across dozens of projects and requests, while keeping the office, its people, client relations, business processes, and technology on track and operating smoothly. They are the lifeblood of our workplaces, we couldn’t get by without them, and the fact that there is only one day a year that honors administrative pros is the real shocker, to my mind.

So why the big fat “No”?

It’s precisely because we depend so much on admins that these situations become fraught for everyone involved. The disconnect happens because the person who accepts the offer for an Admin position when they’d rather be at a higher pay grade (let’s call this person the Non-Admin-Admin) expects to take on development work – projects that will position the Non-Admin-Admin for a promotion to Associate. Meanwhile, the agency or department has enough administrative tasks to bury a battalion of Admins, which is why it posted and interviewed for people with specialized administrative skills.

Frequently, the Non-Admin-Admin has enough experience to be an Associate (there just isn’t an opening right now), but doesn’t know some of the necessary requirements for an Admin job, whether that’s maintaining databases or the delicate dance of keeping everyone scheduled and organized so they can focus on their work. When the Non-Admin-Admin doesn’t want to be an Admin, it’s painful all around, and everyone in the office ends up unhappy.

If you find yourself working as a Non-Admin-Admin, and you’re frustrated with the lack of forward momentum, here are a few key suggestions for career advancement:

Know your company’s promotion policy
Make sure you know the official HR policy on applying for new jobs and in-place promotions (don’t just rely on your manager or hearsay). Do ask people who’ve been promoted (from Admin to Associate, from Associate to Manager) if you can schedule a brief informational discussion with them or offer to buy them a coffee in exchange for some career mentoring. People love talking about their accomplishments, so find out what kinds of skills they needed to learn or projects they took on that enabled managers to see them in a promotable light.

Put a review process in place
Got four-to-six months before you’re eligible for promotion? That’s not an eternity in corporate life, and so not the time to sulk or fill the office with eau de bad attitude. Embrace this time with gusto and schedule a meeting with your manager pronto. Tell him that you see yourself as an Associate in six months, and that you’d like to put a development plan in writing that you’ll both review on a regular schedule. Ask for your manager’s honest assessment so that you have a realistic idea of the skills and behaviors you’ll agree to work on. You can ask questions to clarify, but this isn’t the time to argue with the boss. You’ll need her to sign off when you’ve achieved everything in your plan and are ready to move on.

Accept and excel at your Admin job
This one is absolutely crucial. There’s no question that the ability to succeed at a higher grade will be judged on success as an Admin. The prospect who leaves work undone, doesn’t support the team, acts as if administrative tasks are beneath him or her, shows up late, or, worse, winds up being disciplined for poor performance, will never be eligible for a promotion and may even find themselves unemployed. How you perform at your current position counts for (or against) you when you apply for your next job.

Volunteer for professional-level projects
This is the best way to learn new skills and practice new behaviors. Remember, you still need to keep your current job running like clockwork, but projects are a great way to learn more about the work you’ll be doing and make new allies who can help you navigate your career path at the company.

Learn new technology
Many small agencies and big companies are struggling to manage the additional workload of social media on top of all the existing client work. Learn the company’s blog publishing tool or how to post to its Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest accounts, and you may become indispensible. You’ll be doing the kind of work expected of an Associate and be seen in a new light.

Support your agency’s clients
Are the office’s exempt employees volunteering this weekend at a client’s charity walk-a-thon? Have they been spending lunch hours running around getting people to sign a petition for the client’s pet cause? Once you become an Associate, your focus will be on the client. If there’s a way to jump in now – as a development project, free from concerns about overtime pay – grab it. Like the previous two examples, this will give you the perfect chance to do work at a higher grade level and show everyone what you have to offer.

The Social Full Monty: Are You Being Transparent on Purpose or by Accident?

I’m still shocked at the number of people who share their Twitter feed on LinkedIn. Facebook and Pinterest accounts, too.

It’s one thing to make a conscious decision to do the social equivalent of the Full Monty: after all, your social profile will be vetted thoroughly by most HR departments before you ever sign a contract, so why not make it explicit? Share everything in one spot and make it easy for potential employers to get to know the real you.

But, if you run your full Twitter stream on LinkedIn just because the functionality enables it, then you may want to consider doing some social redressing.

Know Your Channels

Just as television networks target certain demographics – Spike programs for young men; OWN and Lifetime seek female viewers; if ESPN doesn’t offer enough of the sports you like, there’s always the Golf and Tennis channels – social media channels serve different purposes for different audiences. (That’s why there’s so much discussion about the number of women who use Pinterest: it makes the channel a highly targeted way for brands to reach that demographic.)

Check out this interesting view from Brian Solis of the vast spectrum of social media channels and who they’re targeting.

LinkedIn is a bit unusual among the social channels because it focuses exclusively on your professional profile. Sure, you may have created a blog to showcase your professional expertise, but blogs don’t have the same capacity for professional networking and being spotted by headhunters. Likewise if you’ve shared your profile on the website of a professional organization that you’re a member of, you’ll be able to share within the organization, but it’s harder to network these profiles beyond the group’s members.

Channels like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, MySpace, and Orkut are far more social and casual than professional in nature. You tend to let your hair down in these settings, share opinions (sometimes regrettable ones) and photographs (ditto), swear, diss other people’s favorite bands, and sometimes even log on from places like bars or the Superbowl to write updates that demonstrate, perhaps, a propensity for imbibing intoxicating substances.

You Can Leave Your Hat On

Sure, you’ve heard all the warnings about drunk-tweeting or putting Saturday night’s party pictures on Facebook. My point is that different channels require different levels of social behavior. You wear your friend (or sister/
brother/cousin) hat on Facebook; on LinkedIn, you put on your business hat. It’s the digital equivalent of dressing up for an interview.

Unless you’re using the other social channels exclusively for business, and your only social profile is professional, then beware the convenience of linking accounts. You may reveal far more than you intended.

What’s at Stake?

You say something that a potential employer doesn’t like – and you will never know why you didn’t make it to the first, or next, round in the hiring process. You simply won’t get a call back about that dream job you wanted.

You say something negative about your existing company – and find yourself being reprimanded (worse, fired) for violating the company’s social media policy.

Your network tunes you out – and Unconnects you – because your Twitter feed clogs their Updates stream – you become the social version of spam. LinkedIn now allows you to anonymously Unconnect from Connections, which means you may already have reduced your networking options without even realizing it. Keep spamming them and see how your professional network shrinks.

You risk looking like you don’t understand the purpose of LinkedIn – which is unfortunate for anyone in any field, but especially so for communications, PR, marketing, advertising, and social media professionals. The better you understand the purpose of the social channel, the better it will work for you in reaching the people you most want to connect with.

You show the world that you don’t understand how to use LinkedIn – because there is a way to connect Twitter and LinkedIn without going Full Monty. If you decide to add your Twitter account to your LinkedIn profile, make sure that you click the option to “Share only tweets that contain #in.” As The B2B Social Media Book notes, “although it can be easy to forget to add the #in hashtag, it’s better than the alternative of posting too many irrelevant updates to your professional network, which could easily overwhelm your connections.”

You miss real opportunities to share your expertise on LinkedIn and network in a professional realm – using the Share an Update feature or within LinkedIn groups, which offer you options for starting a discussion, asking a question, or creating a poll. Like all the other social media platforms, LinkedIn has its home-grown methods of sharing, and one of them involves answering questions and professional knowledge-sharing within groups. This is where you truly network with people beyond your existing network, show them you care as much about helping them as promoting yourself, present yourself as a seasoned professional with excellent advice, and look like someone that other professionals might want to work with in the future. Don’t forgo the networking opportunities of LinkedIn by relying on a one-way blast of tweets intended for a different audience.

You look like you spend more time on Twitter than you do on your real work – and that’s the most important stake of all. Being on Twitter may be part of your job requirements; you may be a freelancer, using it to promote your work and attract new clients, but if your LinkedIn network – and the headhunters who search that network looking for good job candidates – don’t know that, your constant stream of tweets may look more like play than work.

So be your best professional self in a professional networking channel like LinkedIn and consider, in all those other social arenas, that your social self may need to be somewhat more guarded than your real self. Perhaps treat social channels like a PR or marketing person does the media. To excel in those fields, you’re always “on,” always playing the role of brand or company representative, and you never let anyone sneak a peek behind the curtain.

Be a professional spokesperson for yourself in social channels, and you may find far greater social success the less you reveal.

Check out this related post:

8 Twitter Tips for the Savvy Social Media Practitioner

Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is a day for sharing dinner with extended family and giving thanks for the abundance in our lives.

The U.S. celebration of Thanksgiving is also famous for a big parade of balloons in New York City, an endless exhibition of college football bowl games, overindulging, long naps, and sneaking a second (or third or fourth) slice of pumpkin pie, among many other traditions.

Before joining the festivities, I’d like to offer a heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s helped me this year as I began learning about social media, especially you, the readers of this blog, which launched almost nine months ago.

I’m profoundly grateful for your willingness to come along for the ride with a blog that veers from discussions about corporate communications and PR to reading and the value of public libraries to Twitter, blogging and Facebook. I recognize that it’s hard to leave comments or join a discussion on this blogging platform (and I’m working over the holiday season to make that a lot better for you), but I appreciate those of you who’ve reached out to me via email to share your thoughts, which have guided many of my choices.

One solution has been to create additional spaces where No Bad Language lives; you’ll now find pages for the blog on Facebook and Google+, which should give those of you who are members of these networks more options for discussion and comments minus the onerous log-in process.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you to the following pros who have been generous and gracious in sharing their expertise and insight about social media. I’ve included links, so you can meet these amazing folks, too:

Rita Wechter, author of the beautiful One Day in America travel and photography blog, and Tracy Fox, writer and creator of the Good Green Words blog for those interested in eco-solutions to everyday life – you were there at the start of this journey; thank you for your encouragement and continued cheerleading!

@rockieshapiro, editor and communications pro par excellence and good friend, who, as all good friends should do, pushed me to dig deeper and learn more – thank you!

Erik Deutsch, media and marketing strategist and principal, ExcelPR Group, who packed more social media insight into six weeks than anyone could possibly imagine. In addition to supporting PRSA in Los Angeles, Erik teaches the essential “Best Practices in Social Media for the Communications Professional” course at UCLA Extension. I’m grateful for everything Erik has to teach.

Chris Lam, social media marketer, PR pro, and animated blogger – thank you for your inspiration!

Serena Erhlich, executive director at Attention, and Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, president of the Social Media Club Los Angeles chapter and author of Like My Stuff – thank you for encouragement and continuing education.

Eric Snoek, new blogger, old and wise friend. We started this journey (oh, so many years ago) as fellow journalism students and professional radio broadcasters and have both grown into blogging. Eric shares his expertise in institutional advancement and so much more at Advancement Synergy. Bang a gong, my friend!

Social media is evolving so fast, I find it’s important to keep an open mind about it all and find good sources of knowledge to help gain perspective and ensure standards in the practice. I’d be at the start of the journey without a compass if it weren’t for all of these wonderful people and you, and that is something truly to give thanks for.

Saving Face: 11 Ways to Recover from a PR Disaster

Netflix stock has opened like a poorly reviewed sequel for the past two weeks after reports that the online DVD/movie-streaming company lost 800,000 customers in the last quarter.

The irony is that new pricing and a hastily conceived change in business model, aimed at boosting Netflix’s stock, turned off customers, inviting reputation-drubbing reviews, and ultimately caused scared investors to dump shares.

There were three separate chances – the pricing change, the Qwikster announcement, the Qwikster demise – for Netflix to communicate effectively and help their customers adjust to change, yet the company seemed to bungle each opportunity, infuriating customers to such an extent that they unsubscribed from the service.

Why did communications go so wrong? And, once they’d created a problem, how could Netflix have handled communications to keep customers and investors happy? How do you successfully retract messages and deliver newer, better ones?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a Netflix customer and have been for about seven years, though I don’t own stock in the company. I am probably what Netflix considers a Luddite user – I’ve always had a low-priced DVD-only plan. I was unaffected by most of this as a customer; as a communicator, I learned, and was reminded of, some valuable lessons about messaging change. Here’s what Netflix could’ve done before, during and after…

Introducing the Higher-Priced, Reduced-Service Business Model

In July, Netflix announced it would change its service offerings and price structure. Up until then, folks who had DVD-by-mail accounts also had the option to stream some movies for free from the Netflix library.

Here’s Lesson #1: When you give away a product or service for free, as the old joke goes, you’ve just established its worth. Netflix should have done a better job communicating why it was offering free streaming to begin with, and it should have been explicit about how long the free offer was going to last, so customers weren’t surprised when it went away. Even if they didn’t do this when they launched free streaming, there was still time to communicate before the price hike and service change.

Lesson #2: Explain your decision clearly and provide evidence. When you’ve offered something for free, then decide to charge for it, it’s going to feel like a loss to your customer. When brands and companies retract an existing feature, they need to make the case for change to the audience. The explanation – and any research backing it up – must be compelling enough to convince the audience to adapt to the change. The rationale can’t simply be about a company’s bottom line. (For an effective example of charging for an online service that used to be free, check out this NPR story on The New York Times’ paywall.)

Instead, Netflix choose to deliver the news about changes in pricing and service like this:

“Last November when we launched our $7.99 unlimited streaming plan, DVDs by mail was treated as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan. At the time, we didn’t anticipate offering DVD only [sic] plans. Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members. Given the long life we think DVDs by mail will have, treating DVDs as a $2 add on to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs.”

Lesson #3: Know your audience. Buried inside this price-change announcement was the news that Netflix had plans to eliminate DVD-only plans. Essentially, they were telling customers with DVD-only preferences that they’d better jump on the streaming bandwagon quick-smart or they’d find themselves paying for a combo plan while using only one part of it. Kind of like paying for a surf-and-turf platter and only eating the steak.

If this wasn’t confusing enough – and if freaked out customers were still reading – Netflix abruptly reversed itself: “Since then we have realized that there is still a very large continuing demand for DVDs both from our existing members as well as non-members.” (Italics mine.) The language takes the form of a pronouncement: We’ve decided this for you in consultation with ourselves. With any change – and any decision that affects customers’ wallets is always going to feel like a big change – audiences like to feel as if they’ve been consulted, like they’ve had a chance to provide their point of view. This messaging is entirely one-way communication. It’s no surprise that customers took to social media to voice their complaints…and that Netflix remained silent in those channels for days afterward.

Lesson #4: Be human. Statements like “…treating DVDs as a $2 add on [sic] to our unlimited streaming plan neither makes great financial sense nor satisfies people who just want DVDs” reinforced what many Netflix subscribers viewed as a money-first, customers-second approach. This will happen when the words “financial sense” appear before “people who just want DVDs.”

When communicating about change or any difficult subject, always, always place human beings before any other issue. And try to make those human beings your audience, your customers or your stakeholders, not you and your investors.

With each of its decisions, Netflix failed to indicate if they’d done research into what customers wanted and needed and the price points they were willing to pay. How difficult would it have been to poll customers, invite them to focus groups, or engage them in social media channels before making a business decision?

But, companies on the brink of change are often ruled by fear – of what customers really think, how they’ll react, and what any hint of change will do to Wall Street. Decisions based on research into stakeholder perceptions – part of the due diligence of change management – are a lot more strategic than ones based on assumptions. When we engage stakeholders, we start to think of them as individuals and spend more time with them in two-way conversations, listening and learning. As a result, our communications become a lot more relevant, relatable, human.

An Apology Minus a Strategy

It took until mid-September for Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to jump into the fray the company had caused.

“I messed up,” he began. “I owe everyone an apology.” It was such a promising start, seeming to acknowledge the problem. Unfortunately, this was also the email that begat Qwikster and foisted the awkward two websites/two passwords/two credit card charges business structure onto baffled customers.

Lesson #5: Demonstrate that you’re sincere. Apologizing was the right move for Netflix, and the CEO was the right person to deliver the communication. The apology itself was well-worded; it didn’t resort to any “I’m sorry you thought I said that when I really said this” shenanigans.

Hastings went on to provide some context, pointing to companies, such as AOL and Borders, which had failed to adapt to change. “Companies rarely die from moving too fast, and they frequently die from moving too slowly,” he wrote.

Then, he added, “When Netflix is evolving rapidly, however, I need to be extra-communicative. This is the key thing I got wrong.” But, when he tried to re-explain the pricing and service changes, the language again turns a deaf ear on customers:

“So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are becoming two quite different businesses, with very different cost structures, different benefits that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. It’s hard for me to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary and best: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to ‘Qwikster.’”

“We realized….we need…we think it is necessary and best…” I’ve included the link to the full email so that you can see for yourself that, besides the apology, there’s little in the way of an explanation that takes into account the needs of and what’s best for customers. Really, it’s not about you, the email essentially says, it’s about how hard this is for me.

“For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that distinctive red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be the same for many of you. We’ll also return to marketing our DVD by mail service, with its amazing selection, now with the Qwikster brand.” [sic]

Lesson #6: Pinpoint the issue and address it directly. In its haste to announce and explain Qwikster, Hastings and Netflix lost sight of the real issue at hand: customers were upset over a perceived loss of service combined with a price hike. They weren’t clamoring for Qwikster as a solution. This lesson goes hand-in-hand with the previous one – it’s impossible to be (or sound) sincere when you’re addressing the wrong subject.

For this to feel like a genuine apology, Netflix needed to clearly state its rationale for the price changes and back up its words with tangible improvement to existing service(s) that demonstrated a benefit to customers despite the price increase. The Qwikster announcement merely changed the subject, it didn’t make the issue go away.

Lesson #7: Unless you can poke fun at yourself, don’t try to be funny when communicating difficult information. “There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!),” Hastings added to his email, striving to be jocular. Humor is tough under the best circumstances; it never works when your audience is angry (actually, it works to make them angrier) because it sounds like you’re missing the point. Which is exactly what Hastings was doing.

The About-face

Customers weren’t the only ones left scratching their heads. Investors, the audience Netflix was preaching to all along, became equally irate as the missteps shone a spotlight on an utter lack of strategic thinking in the executive suites. Stock price reflected this loss of confidence, plummeting some 70 percent in three months, after visiting $300 a share in mid-July of this year.

R.I.P. Qwikster.

On Oct. 10, a terse email from “The Netflix Team” – rather than the CEO this time – announced that Qwikster had imploded on the launch pad.

The note reiterated its pricing messaging without acknowledging the customer outcry that had led to Netflix’s disastrous business model revamp: “While the July price change was necessary, we are now done with price changes.”

The brevity of this communication was designed to get the whole thing out of the way quickly. Yet there are still lessons to be drawn:

Lesson #8: Don’t market, explain. With every announcement, Netflix felt the need to market some additional service. Here it’s a giant paragraph (far longer than the space allotted the slap-dash demise of Qwikster) devoted to their streaming services. It’s random, it’s off-topic, it’s just not helpful. Mainly, it suggests Netflix is just going to keep hammering away at their messages and not listen to or care about what the audience has to say or needs to know.

Lesson #9: Enlist back-up. Work with industry pundits and influencers among your target audience in advance of any big announcement. Explain what you’re about to do, demonstrate the research you’ve done to support the change, detail how you plan to message about it, and listen to their reaction. Adjust your message accordingly, then ask for their support when traditional media come calling with questions and on social networking sites, before chatter gets loud. Netflix should have enlisted industry analysts and techies before its first announcement; it was an absolute requirement by the time they retracted their position on Qwikster.

Some final lessons that may help brands and companies avoid PR disasters like this:

Lesson #10: PR can’t solve everything. You gotta feel for Netflix’s spokesman, who was sounding mighty beleaguered by the time announcement No. 3 rolled out. This was one of those PR disasters where Netflix basically revealed that “the Emperor has no clothes.” There was no strategic thinking or planning behind Qwikster – it was a knee-jerk reaction to a deluge of angry customer comments – and no PR can dress that up.

Lesson #11: Focus on the future. This is where your customers and Wall Street want you anyway. It’s clear Netflix had a vision of a future where clunky old DVDs – easily damaged, slow to mail – were no longer part of the business model. Instant streaming seemed to be the way of the future. But, the company needed to do the work to get customers to share the same vision, understand the value proposition, overcome any technology gaps or fears, and adopt the new way of accessing the Netflix library.

To be visionary, you have to know how to lead. In this case, Netflix needed to invest time, money and, goodness, yes, communications to educate the portion of its customer base that wasn’t in that magical early-adopter space. Teaching, sharing knowledge and information, is always preferable to pronouncing. And, like two-way communication on social networks, it puts you squarely in touch with your most valued constituents and helps you understand what they’re thinking, what they need, and when they’re ready to make the leap with you.

Does Timing Affect Engagement on Facebook and Twitter?

At a webinar today on “The Science of Social Timing” with Jay Baer and Eric Boggs, the two speakers shared data showing that both B2B and B2C companies are still posting content to social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, when they’re at work, rather than focusing on the customer’s schedule. They also pointed out an important opportunity that most companies are missing.

Baer, social media consultant at Convince and Convert, presented several hypotheses, and Boggs’s Argyle Social crunched the data from 250,000 posts (two-thirds of which were from Twitter, one-third from Facebook), examining the highest engagement times on these social networks.

Often we want research to generate “oh wow!” results, but findings, like Argyle Social’s in this study, which show that engagement levels remain steady Monday through Friday, can be just as valuable to your business. A key discovery, that Baer highlights in a follow-up blog post, is that “there may be a large opportunity for B2C marketers on Facebook on Sundays.”

“We found that few companies publish status updates on Sunday, yet engagement (clicks divided by audience) is 30% higher than Saturday, and even higher than versus weekdays.”

Baer and Boggs believe Sunday posts to Facebook are a big, overlooked opportunity because the audiences for both B2B and B2C companies tend to drop off Twitter as the end of the week approaches and ramp up their use of Facebook to plan weekend activities. Even if you schedule Sunday Facebook posts in advance, Baer believes there is a strong chance for greater engagement.

Note that they are using clicks to determine engagement, not retweets, likes, comments or conversions.

The bottom line? Baer (@jaybaer) and Boggs (@ericboggs) recommended that brands and companies should beware of social media “rules of thumb” because every business is different. They encourage devising your own hypotheses (i.e., what’s meaningful for your business, your customers) and running your own experiment (rather than using historical data to justify a conclusion) to determine the best times for engagement with your audiences.

You’ll find the complete infographic here, which shares the main findings about the effectiveness of social timing, and you can listen to the free, one-hour webinar on the Argyle Social website.

All it Takes Is a Little Imagination

Lots of news about Twitter this week, including several stories about using the social media channel to target print media outlets.

One battle is Ashton Kutcher v. Village Voice. A more disturbing story that broke in U.K. newspapers – about the News of the World (NOTW) hacking the phone account of murdered 13-year-old Milly Dowler – has turned into an all-out war against the tabloid, using Twitter to encourage advertisers to boycott this Fleet Street staple.

The background is thisNOTW is accused of hacking into the mobile phone account of the young teen, who went missing in 2002; listening to voicemail messages left by distraught family and friends; then deleting voicemails when the mailbox was full so that more messages could be left on the system. When relatives of the missing girl discovered that voicemails had been deleted, they thought they had reason to believe she might still be alive and gave hopeful interviews to NOTW.

News of the phone hackings ultimately got out – there are further allegations, involving hacked accounts of other victims of tragedies – and writer Melissa Harrison at the Guardian newspaper began a campaign to make NOTW’s advertisers uncomfortable enough to withdraw their support for a tabloid that might endorse this kind of unprofessional conduct. You can read her description of the response that followed here.

Harrison’s article frankly discusses the importance and some of the difficulties of a free press in a democratic society – the downside being the risk of immoral behavior creeping in to the newsgathering process.

Social media hasn’t been free of some of these downsides (and it could be argued that the technological acumen that gave us cell phones and hacking also conjured up innovations like Twitter). But, Harrison adds, “it’s times like this when Twitter really comes into its own.”

“As a truly democratic forum, everyone can get involved and have their say, and it’s easy to share information and ideas,” Harrison writes. “And because it’s all so public, it’s very hard for companies to ignore public pressure or hide behind rhetoric. For every 5,000 tweets with a funny cat photo there’s a moment like this, when Twitter remembers what it can really do.”

Tabloids are an easy target for disapprobation. So is Twitter. People buy and read tabloids and use social media for all sorts of reasons. As Harrison notes in her article, it’s easy to dismiss some of the awful things that appear in tabloids with the statement that “they only print it because people want to read it.”

While that may be true of celebrity gossip, I think it’s more nuanced when it comes to stories of missing children. This is just my opinion, but I think it may be that most readers seek out stories like this because of fear, not titillation. They are looking for clues, differently from the official investigators, but just as diligently, about the level of danger in their neighborhoods and that their children might be exposed to. They are weighing the information available to them to decide what to do, how to protect their families, and how to talk to their children about some of the terrible things that happen in this world.

Instead of helping, the tabloid failed its readers, misjudging what they were capable of. From the evidence of Melissa Harrison’s Twitter campaign, all it might have taken was a little imagination on the part of NOTW editors and writers to figure out how to channel the concern for a missing child into something far more valuable and lasting, perhaps a campaign that stirred readers to form neighborhood watch groups or reach out to and support the families of victims or find new ways to protect children when they walk home from school.

Making Your Social Media Accounts More Secure

This holiday weekend saw the latest in a string of Twitter hacks, when one of Fox News’s many accounts was broken into and tweets were published implying that U.S. President Barack Obama had been assassinated.

These hacks mainly target popular or celebrity Twitter accounts. According to The New York Times story, representatives from Twitter are claiming it was not the company’s servers that were compromised, while Fox News appears to be investigating where the security breach came from.

While Twitter has had ongoing issues with its servers, especially during periods of heavy traffic, there are steps individuals and companies can take to make accounts more secure:

Use complicated passwords – and protect them
The NYT article suggests that it was a Fox News email account hack that led to the Twitter takeover. Whether you are working remotely, via mobile technology, or in the office, I’m sure your IT department will remind you that you need passwords for all of your personal and social media accounts that are longer than six letters and include numbers and symbols. Change your passwords regularly. And don’t share them with others or let anyone shoulder-surf when you’re typing them on your mobile or tablet devices.

Consolidate your company’s Twitter accounts
The hacked @foxnewspolitics Twitter account was apparently one of many accounts belonging to Fox News. While the news organization is presumably trying to offer more targeted information to its audiences, the most effective way to target and curate is by offering a variety of custom feeds from your website and blogs, rather than on a microblog. One Fox News Twitter handle can promote new content on the various blogs and on the website and audience members can subscribe to the content they’re interested in and ignore the rest. Same thing goes for other companies. Twitter has become a helpful way to reach customer service and receive direct responses from companies, but it’s increasingly unhelpful to users to type in a company name and come up with literally hundreds of options that need to be sorted through to determine which one is correct.

Figure out what’s manageable
To use the @foxnewspolitics example again, the NYT report notes that this particular account was dormant, possibly because of the long holiday weekend. It took 10 hours to notice the break-in, regain control of the account, and remove the phony tweets. This is a manageability issue: there are too many Twitter accounts at this company and not enough people overseeing them, especially on a holiday. Back in the day, when I worked in radio, stations would go off the air overnight when there wasn’t enough sponsor interest to keep a graveyard-shift DJ employed. They did not remain on-air during this time, risking that someone might enter the studio and commandeer the airwaves for their own personal messages. Leaving a Twitter or other social media account unmanaged over a holiday is the equivalent of leaving a radio station transmitter on and a microphone wide open. If your company has social media accounts, it needs to have a plan detailing not just content, but who manages them and when and who covers over holidays.

Have an emergency plan
In addition to a regular editorial and management schedule for your social media accounts, you need a crisis plan. You need to know who to contact at companies like Twitter and Facebook (including how to reach these folks after hours and on holidays) and how you will prove that you indeed are you if someone else has locked you out of your account.

Yet Another Reason to Give Employees Access to Social Media

In the second-to-last paragraph of a standard article on the Microsoft-Skype acquisition in The New York Times, you’ll find this interesting assessment:

“Skype, analysts say, is evidence of the recent pattern of innovations coming first to the freewheeling consumer market – like instant messaging, social networks and video chat – and then cascading to businesses.”

There’s a lengthy list of well-reasoned arguments for adopting social media channels inside an organization (whether or not a company uses them externally). From Skype to wikis to micro-blogs, social tools and channels go beyond internal communications, supporting cross-functional collaboration, geographically dispersed teams, and innovation.

There was a time when departments like IT, training and corporate communications had to focus on upskilling employees to help them overcome technophobia and to drive productivity. Many, many cartoons and Help Desk jokes (“Hello. IT. Have you tried turning it Off and On again?”) entered the zeitgeist as a result. Those days have disappeared like Tivo, and the employee who knows less about apps and connected devices and SEO than IT is a rarity.

So, the ubiquity of social media in the world outside the organization should be near the top of any petition to the senior team. This isn’t a case for riding a trend or “if Jimmy gets a Mohawk and tattoo, I suppose you’ll want them, too” (or whatever the corporate equivalent of that mom-ism might be). It’s simply this: Employees are spending a great deal of their time outside your company using social media. And, like them or not, these channels are already inside company walls. (In fact, employees are so engrossed with social channels that many companies are erecting roadblocks to the access of the most common of these, such as YouTube and Twitter, fearing network-capacity issues and loss of productivity.) It becomes imperative, then, to the overall health of the company that we utilize common tools (even though they might be considered consumer, rather than corporate) to provide support to the people doing the work, so that their capabilities and knowledge-sharing aren’t thwarted by outdated systems.

Here’s the other aspect of this concern: Employees should bring their knowledge of the business to bear on the company’s tools. They shouldn’t have to bear with and MacGyver tools that aren’t remotely as sophisticated as the ones their kids use on iPads. For example, if a Twitter-type channel is inside the walls, and employees have free rein to use it, then they can mold it to support the unique and specific types of knowledge-sharing, information-flow, data-gathering and storage, collaboration, etc. that the work demands and that corporate culture needs. You may wind up with a vastly different looking channel than the micro-blog you started out with, but it’s most important that the technology supports the work and the employees who execute it and not the other way around.

Make it available, make it open, make it useful and robust, and you’ll never have to worry about employees sneaking “offsite” to use Twitter because the quality of and mindshare on the internal micro-blog is so helpful and (yes!) intriguing and valuable that they won’t need the consumer version.

A few tips:

It’s not (just) about communications 
Successful adoption, business productivity and strong return on investment depend on widespread use of these tools and channels. While corporate communications departments can be a business champion for social media, the greatest value comes from the support these channels offer to the essential business of the corporation. Utilizing them as communications channels is one piece of a much larger picture.

You don’t have to implement everything at once 
It’s a reality that infrastructure is difficult to fund in the corporate world (and not just during economic downturns; most companies outside of Silicon Valley make it especially difficult to get budget expenditures approved for operational expenses like IT). Make the case for one channel or tool at a time by developing clear ROI measurement, and it’ll be easier to prove value the next go-round.

Match tools with business need
Especially if the budget only allows for one tool, take the time to do the analysis to figure out which tool or channel will best support business-knowledge-sharing and the key work of the company.

Prepare the way with governance and usage guidelines 
And crowdsource these. Let users create governance (remembering that Legal and HR are in that crowd of users and will have their say, too), so the process of developing the rules of the road doesn’t delay implementation, won’t discourage employees with too many restrictions on usage before they even put their hands on the channels, and so that governance is followed as a matter of consensus rather than enforcement (because the “rules” were created by “us,” not “them”).

Of April Fools and Twitter Rogues

Looks like most pundits are filing this lapse on the Marc Jacobs fashion house’s Twitter account under bad publicity = good publicity. PR Daily suggests that the Twitter intern’s meltdown “will probably help Marc Jacobs in that it boosts exposure to its Twitter feed.”

It reminded me of the error that cost journalist Linda Ellerbee her first job at a wire service: she used the computer at work to write a personal letter that ranted against her employer and, instead of hitting Print, managed to send out the letter to said wire service’s subscribers – promptly landing herself a better job with one of the subscribers.

It happened with old media, it happens with the new. One update: there’s a line of thinking that goes It’s Better to Hire Young People to Manage Our Twitter Accounts Because They “Get” Social Media. It’s why interns are overseeing a lot of temptingly open channels to your key audiences.

Truly, I’m not trying to start a Seasoned Professional vs. Callow Youth or With-it Social Media Guru vs. Old Fuddy-duddy flame war – this is not about that kind of dynamic – only to suggest that Twitter and Facebook are newer versions of the same old channels.

Good communications people of every age need to learn how to use these new tools to serve our clients and audiences and, while that includes a bit of personal-technical-upgrading (which I’m guilty of avoiding myself sometimes), it’s our adherence to guiding principles (such as communicating on behalf of our clients and audiences, rather than putting ourselves first) that makes us professionals – whether we’ve been at this work for days or decades,

Likewise the role of intern isn’t the problem here. I’ve seen plenty of interns do remarkable work – and come into a department with their own strong set of professional tenets and work habits. It’s the choice being made to assign an entire channel to someone with short-term skin in the game. The amount of time an intern spends in an organization is often barely enough to absorb an understanding of a communications department’s regular work flow, much less to adopt and implement the principles that guide why and how a company communicates.

Handing over the keys to a social media channel to the person who understands how to use it most effectively isn’t a bad instinct. But, these channels are where a good percentage of the conversation about your organization and your brands are happening, and they deserve as much oversight and guidance as your websites, newsletters and employee meetings.