Transparency and Responsibility in Social Media

Two people I’ve worked with in the past confess not to using any sort of social media (outside of linked in for CV posts) on the basis of too much information can be a bad thing. Indeed most social media watchers, users, analysts etc will tell you that “keeping it real” is an essential part of maintaining an engaged audience. But as in real life, can one be “too transparent”?

Enter the curious case of James Andrews, VP at public relations agency Ketchum, and a guy who calls himself “The Key Influencer” both on his blog and on Twitter. While visiting client FedEx in Memphis, James apparently has a row with a local, and turns to twitter to, shall we say, voice his displeasure with the locals:

For those unfamiliar with FedEx’s culture, here’s a bit of background: one of founder Fred Smith’s priorities was to creat a company culture which is socially activist.  FedEx employees often engage in community activities and charity events. They take a great deal of pride in their community, as as you can no doubt imagine, James’ tweet was considered a bit of a digital kick in the groin. Blogger David Henderson later broke the news that a FedEx employee following Andrews on Twitter ran the message up the corporate flagpole. FedEx corporate promptly zapped over to James’ inbox the following email response:

Mr. Andrews,

If I interpret your post correctly, these are your comments about Memphis a few hours after arriving in the global headquarters city of one of your key and lucrative clients, and the home of arguably one of the most important entrepreneurs in the history of business, FedEx founder Fred Smith.

Many of my peers and I feel this is inappropriate. We do not know the total millions of dollars FedEx Corporation pays Ketchum annually for the valuable and important work your company does for us around the globe. We are confident however, it is enough to expect a greater level of respect and awareness from someone in your position as a vice president at a major global player in your industry. A hazard of social networking is people will read what you write.

Not knowing exactly what prompted your comments, I will admit the area around our airport is a bit of an eyesore, not without crime, prostitution, commercial decay, and a few potholes. But there is a major political, community, religious, and business effort underway, that includes FedEx, to transform that area. We’re hopeful that over time, our city will have a better “face” to present to visitors.

James, everyone participating in today’s event, including those in the auditorium with you this morning, just received their first paycheck of 2009 containing a 5% pay cut… which we wholeheartedly support because it continued the tradition established by Mr. Smith of doing whatever it takes to protect jobs.

Considering that we just entered the second year of a U.S. recession, and we are experiencing significant business loss due to the global economic downturn, many of my peers and I question the expense of paying Ketchum to produce the video open for today’s event; work that could have been achieved by internal, award-winning professionals with decades of experience in television production.

Additionally Mr. Andrews, with all due respect, to continue the context of your post; true confession: many of my peers and I don’t see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do in Employee Communications.

(Signed as a personal message by a member of the FedEx Corporate Communications team)

There’s been a good discussion on several blogs (David Henderson’s , Jeremiah Owyang’s, and Peter Shankman to name a few) as well as from FedEx employees on Twitter here and here. As the conversation developed on Twitter, James first stood firm and tried to develop context, but later reversed course and  apologized on this own blog. Even Andrew’s wife got into the fray with a blog post aptly titled “That’s my Man You’re Talking About!” (that’s is really all the post contains). Jeremiah Owyang was quick to point out that the FedEx response was pretty severe. I would normally agree, except for one important detail..

He Calls Himself the “Key Influencer”, and He Was in Memphis to Coach FedEx on Using Social Media.

Jeremiah’s a smart cookie and his radar normally spot-on, but I believe he missed the point here. So did Gawker. Consider this: if I provide medical advice, and my advice turns out to be bogus, I’m not likely to get sued, because obviously I’m not a medical professional. But a doctor has a higher degree of accountability. Generally said, the consequences of an epic fail are mostly slight provided you’re not an expert in what you’re flubbing.  Now James may be a sharp guy and talented, but a guy who makes a living coaching others on social media use needs to understand that clients read tweets (a lesson he won’t soon forget, I imagine).  And it’s not like dust ups of this sort haven’t happened before; there’s plenty of history to learn from. The FedEx response author was correct in pointing out that the benefit .. and downside.. of social media is that people will read what you write. Twitter is a key influencer.

Key Takeaways from the Tweet that Shook Fedex

  • If you’re an “expert,” be one. If you make a living teaching or consulting on social media, be prepared to take some serious heat if you misuse social media. You have a higher degree of responsibility, because by definition, you should know what you’re doing. This isn’t quite a fiduciary duty, but something close to it.
  • Be honest, Be conversational. There are some “gurus” I don’t follow, because their social media use involves advertising and self-promotion, not conversation. I’ll give James this: he was honest and that’s something most of us appreciate.
  • Praise liberally, criticize constructively. This one isn’t just a good social media practice, it’s good sense. Had James written something to the tune of “This city really needs investment in urban centers”, I doubt the reaction would have been as brutal. It doesn’t matter if Memphis looks awful or not; how he said (not what he said) created the row.
  • Focus. It’s understandable if James was annoyed with a local and wanted to Tweet about it. But he should have tongue-lashed the local jerk who provoked his anger, not the city in general.
  • An errant tweet or post can become a lightning rod for other axes to grind . In this case, it’s clear some folks at FedEx weren’t entirely happy or didn’t understand the value of Ketchum’s work. James’ lapse in judgement gave them the perfect outlet to question the value of the business relationship openly. The same can happen to any of us.
  • Ask questions, get context. This isn’t all one-sided. Fedex’s response was far too severe and yet inadequate. Someone at corporate should have asked James why he thinks Memphis is an awful place to live.  Twitter’s 140 character limit somewhat limits context, which FedEx employees should have understood. Besides, a group of people interested in making Memphis the best city it can be should welcome outside points of view. When we stop welcoming criticsm, however painful it may be to hear, we stop improving. Maybe that lesson can incorporated into James’ next coaching session with FedEx, provided they’re still a client.
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This entry was published on January 27, 2009 at 2:23 AM. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

8 thoughts on “Transparency and Responsibility in Social Media

  1. Beautifully recounted

  2. Pingback: Posts about social media as of January 27, 2009

  3. Javier Heredia on said:

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was don’t post anything online you won’t be embarrassed about years later. Considering how all my management is on Facebook, I’ve been mindful lately. 🙂

    However, the community has to take in mind the idea of working hours. In the above case, yes, Mr. Andrews was on the clock. But if he was visiting Memphis on his own without a FedEx appointment, I would treat the response as hostile not corrective.

  4. Pingback: Misjudgment or Transparency? How a Single Tweet Caused a Stir With a Client

  5. Thanks for reading guys! Dukrous: excellent point re: if he’s on the clock he needs to manage himself a bit differently. There might be a case here for a personal vs professional Twitter handle (with the latter secured).

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  7. You have some great points here. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Hello, yup this piece of writing is truly pleasant and I have learned lot of things from it on the topic of blogging. thanks.|

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