On social media and accountability

I’ve been thinking a lot about business use of social media lately, and the recent Twitter fiasco over Paperchase and plagiarism has brought everything into a particularly clear focus. Social media has made consumers expect more from businesses; specifically, it’s made us expect everyone to be accountable for their actions.

Social media is all about conversations: conversations going on in comment fields, over blogs, over Facebook profiles, or over Twitter. (Twitter is really more like one enormous, slow chat room than it is a blogging network; it’s about expressing ideas immediately and succinctly, about conversing in real-time or thereabouts.) But conversations go both ways, and that’s what’s difficult for a lot of companies to take on board.

It would be easy to see social media as a way to access your customers directly and get your messages out quickly and widely, and to expect to be able to foster goodwill just by existing in the social media space. And that can work. But in order to successfully use social media as a promotional tool, you need to have your house in order. You need a strong product, and enthusiastic people who believe in it. Hoping that social media will somehow make up for a lacklustre product, or expecting to be able to create a positive buzz without believing in your message yourself, will end badly. Social media won’t work miracles. And if you’re going to open yourself up to the social media arena, you need to be prepared for people to criticise you. That criticism is a lot easier to deal with when you’re confident that you’re doing good work, as long as you’re humble enough to admit it when you’ve made a mistake.

The thing with Paperchase was that they initially dealt with the accusation of plagiarism badly, by trying to ignore it and hoping it would go away. If they’d listened to Hidden Eloise when she first approached them about the copied image, assured her that they were investigating it, and then actually investigated and done something about it, the story wouldn’t have blown up on Twitter. But they didn’t. And then Neil Gaiman got involved, and suddenly there were thousands of people demanding that Paperchase answer to them.

The final sentence of the public statement they issued said it all, really. “It is worrying that such an allegation can create such reaction and again, Paperchase apologises for any ill-feeling caused.” It is worrying that such an allegation can create such a reaction: it means these allegations have to be taken seriously, even when there’s no legal clout behind them. Well, it might be worrying for businesses; for everyone else, it’s great. It means there’s a way to hold businesses accountable, a way to publicly ask them to live up to the standards we expect of them.

I guess I should amend my earlier statement, and say that to really make a success out of using social media, you need a strong product, enthusiastic people who believe in it, and the ability to listen to your customers, admit mistakes and make changes where necessary. Social media isn’t just about PR; if you’re going to talk to your customers, you need to be prepared to listen to them, and actually do something about what they’re saying.

In many cases, it might just seem easier for businesses to stay out of social media entirely. It requires time and investment, and getting involved opens up the possibility of making large and highly public mistakes, like the recent Vodafone blunder. The problem, though, is that more and more people are joining up to social media sites, and staying out of them entirely means you risk letting the conversation go on without you. Paperchase decided they couldn’t let that happen, but it took a PR crisis to get them there.

We’re starting to expect more, from everyone. Is that scary? Maybe it should be.

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