One of the key benefits of social media is how information can spread like wildfire over vast audiences. It is also one of its major disadvantages.
The fear of a storm of derision on Facebook or Twitter can drive businesses to be overprotective of their brand image. It can be tempting to shy away from voicing opinions that could be pounced upon by social media warriors, whether the genuinely outraged or those just out to make trouble.
Yet to join the conversation on social media, you have to say something. So many business contributors tend to opt for middle-ground, uncontroversial social media campaigns in order to provide them with exposure while avoiding criticism. There are two main problems that can come from this strategy:
1. Middle-ground areas are heavily populated
It is impossible for businesses to stand out on social media by making anodyne contributions because so many others are doing the same. A “me too” policy for social engagement may either sink a campaign without trace or even risk harming the perception of a brand through its shear banality.
2. There are very few completely safe topics
The government has announced a plan to extend the 5p charge on plastic bags currently restricted to supermarkets and large stores (with over 250 employees) to now include smaller retailers.
- This would seem to be an altogether praiseworthy policy for environmental protection. After all, 9 billion fewer plastic bags have been used by shoppers since the charge was originally introduced.
Yet key in #plasticbags on Twitter and you find that this topic is by no means free from controversy. Granted, there is a wide range of positive comment but the opposite is there too. This includes Tweets from those who believe that there should be a total ban on using plastic bags for retail, which could be expected.
Less easy to predict was the RT of an article in the Canadian publication Financial Post which claims that banning disposable plastic bags could both pose a health risk and damage the environment. Lastly, of course, there are those who use a trending hashtag to bring in other issues altogether, such as NHS bed shortages.
Be risk aware but not risk averse
Businesses can have a valuable contribution to make to discussions on social media and should not be backward in coming forward when they have helpful views on a given subject, especially if they are backed by industry experience. If a point you wish to make is likely to generate some negative feedback, it is important to have the relevant facts and information to support your argument.
Our advice about voicing opinions in social media debates is founded on the following principles:
Any opinion provided by a business on social media should be consistent with its brand identity and ethos. Posts on social media are generated by people who may have strong views of their own about a subject, but it is essential that these do not interfere with the basic perception of the brand. Conversely, a strong view expressed that is in line with a brand’s mission and ethical stance, even if it is a potentially controversial one, will reinforce loyalty from those in sympathy with these precepts.
It may be tempting to hitch on to a popular bandwagon, but again the important thing is to keep the brand front of mind. If there is something you feel your business can contribute to the debate, then it needs to add value and depth. Saying “we agree” with a point being makes very little impact. Saying “we agree because…” and you’re getting somewhere.
Once a contribution has been made to a social media debate, then it is all the more important to monitor the relevant social media channels closely in order to step in with suitable responses or additional points for discussion. Long delays may indicate that you don’t regard the subject with the importance that many people will think it deserves.
If the topic is controversial then your views may receive some negative flack, a proportion of which could be ill-informed and maybe abusive. Sometimes a witty response can be very effective, but this needs to be without sarcasm so that sympathy is not generated for the opposing side.
While much of the activity that businesses carry out on social media will be focused on offering useful facts, tips and engaging with target audiences, occasions do arise where a newsworthy topic will provide opportunities for comment but also potential pitfalls if you raise your head above the parapet. Our advice is to be aware of the risks but not averse to taking them.
If there are opportunities for your business to usefully contribute to a social media debate, and if by doing so there could be potential benefits for your communications strategies, then get prepared with the necessary facts and take the plunge.