Social Media Authenticity

The elephant in the living room for communications professionals is the current fascination with social media authenticity. As a communications professional who has carved out a business by translating thoughts, beliefs and points of view into cogent statements for press releases and annual reports alike – I initially railed at the thought of requiring social media to be so authentic that it would preclude professionally written entries.

In early March I had a “Facebook conversation” with Daniel Johnson, Jr. (SQL Server developer/New media guy and New Media Cincinnati Founder) on the topic, I wrote:

“To me it comes down to the quality of the writing. If you have an entity with a great deal to say but little ability to communicate it because of technology or a basic inability to write well, why not use a professional writer to give voice to your thoughts – just like you would use a technical consultant to help design the look of the page – it’s still your page. As long as the meaning remains intact does it matter what it looks like? And I speak for thousands of unemployed freelance writers out here who say YES – the quality of the writing DOES matter and a professional company should seek to maintain a professional image. I agree that this shouldn’t apply with casual social media like Twitter – and I wonder what your stance on computer-generated responses on that front is.”

Since that conversation much has been revealed about ghost writers working accounts for others on social media sites like Twitter. In a recent Cincinnati Enquirer article “Politics Rushes to Twitter,” – I learned that Rep. John Boehner has two twitter accounts that are managed and written by others – operatives within his office. Most of the Tweets I saw pertained to GOP positions on this or that. On the other hand, Sen. Claire McCaskill uses Twitter to keep her followers up to date on White House meetings and doing laundry. Which is more effective? Well, if you want to broadcast to your constituency what your stance and/or response to the proposed budget is, isn’t the Boehner method of using Twitter to quickly deliver a URL or talking point into the hands of his followers better – even though he isn’t actually writing it? And isn’t that more interesting to them then that, say, you’re on your third cup of coffee? Yes and no – and that’s where authenticity comes in. One could argue – that’s also where the “social” gets stripped from the “media.”

PR and IR professionals routinely write quotes for company presidents for press releases. And no one believes that the President writes his own speeches. The speechwriters, similarly, are not omnipotent – they work from a set of talking points or beliefs or points of view that are held by the speech maker.

Perhaps the difference lies between celebrity and reality. Or perhaps the difference lies in the definition of “social media” itself.

A small business owner who seeks an internet presence may hire a communications professional to design a site and write a blog. For example, a boutique retailer might want to host a blog about fashion as part of the website, but not necessarily have the time or ability to write it. Is that being disingenuous? Is the blog reader being misled into believing that the writer is the owner of the business? I don’t think so – that’s reality. I don’t expect my painter to be a web 2.0 expert.

Johnson’s response was:
“I believe that some level of transparency is needed. If you’re going to hire someone to write as you’ve said, then at least disclose that. Some statement that mentions that the blogger has people to contribute, but that he or she maintains full editorial power – the opinions expressed remain his or her own. Again, the key for me is transparency.”

So should the professional communicator counsel clients to use professional writers to keep the content fresh and relevant but disclose when guest bloggers or others contribute? Edit your profile on Twitter to reflect that updates are “From the Office of Sen. XYZ,” and don’t infer that the politician is actually writing the Tweets if they aren’t. It really determines the authenticity of your conversation – if you are spouting policy versus sending TwitPics of cherry blossoms – which is more representative of who you are?

Posted in Uncategorized.

6 thoughts on “Social Media Authenticity

  1. Everyone’s use of social media tools is going to be different… and that’s okay. It has to be. My goals and objectives are going to be different from yours and political figures and celebrities.

    I believe that social media is most effective when it is social. Something about a U.S. Senator mentioning flower blossoms, to me, makes that person more real to me, more authentic, than, say Congressman Boehner constantly spouting off his positions about things. There is no engagement. The relationship is one-sided. There is no conversation.

    At least that’s how it comes across to me.


  2. Jeanne,

    You raise some great questions here. For me, the authenticity becomes key dependent upon who is “speaking” or disseminating the information and what my relationship is to the speaker. I have no problem with a “personality” using a staff of ghost writers, assuming they are fully aligned to the essence of their subject. I follow certain notable personalities in the Social Media Marketing world in order to keep abreast of the latest happenings and tech changes that are occurring. As long as the stream of information is there, then it doesn’t matter to me if Guy Kawasaki, new media consultant, is actually “speaking” or if one of his staff members is doing it for him. The same goes for the Rep. John Boehner example that you raise above. I believe in personal branding and as long as the message is staying true to the brand, then let the ghost writers have at it.

    On the other hand, I would expect that the people that I am close to in RL vs. VL would communicate directly with me, or give me some indication if I was receiving something that was not in their “authentic” voice. Anything short of full disclosure would make me feel like I’d been cheated and taken advantage of.

    I see communication as two facets in my life: the first as a method of basic information sharing and the second, as a genuine exchange of ideas, sentiments, and debate between two authentic people having forged a real connection. Social Media is all about making that connection; for it is in the exchange that change occurs and the evolution continues.

    Thanks for posting!



  3. I agree – cherry blossoms humanize the politician. The Boehner Tweets might as well be written by a bot – they are wonkish and predictable and utterly unlike what one expects from social media. Is this how the guy talks when he’s out playing golf? Nope.


  4. I think what a lot of people, companies, and agencies who are use to talking at people are missing is that social media isn’t about marketing. It’s about listening.

    Corporate/organizational use of social media should be mostly about customer service. But customer service that is out in the open, that doubles as marketing, that sparks conversations about how painless it is to do business with you or about how your organization is making a difference.

    You shouldn’t just throw things out there, whether ghostwritten or your own honest admission of your caffeine addiction. You need to monitor and interact, keep on eye on what is being said about you and your area(s) of interest.

    Be a helpful voice, participate, answer questions, and make recommendations & introductions.


  5. Great post. I’m writing an article about social media advertising that should appear in ADOTAS next week. One of my key points is that brands have to be authentic. So I came across your blog via a quick Google search on what others have said about that subject. I appreciate the examples and the insight.

    For me, I think authenticity comes from establishing a connection between the publisher and the audience. Brands can do that as can politicians, celebrities, or everyday Joes. But I do think that pols and celebs that are masquerading as social media participants are straddling the line a bit. But if they’re using Facebook or Twitter to simply broadcast information (positions, tour dates, appearances, etc) then I don’t have a problem with it. But if they’re speaking in the first person and sharing opinion, then the person on the other end of the keyboard better be who they say they are or there’s a certain fakeness that could damage their rep and brand. Just my take.


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