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Debunking Myths Tied to Social Media Authenticity

May 6, 2013

This post first appeared on High Talk and was written by George Snell, Senior Vice President of digital/social media for Weber Shandwick Boston. To hear more from George, watch our 1st Take video, in which George discusses the changing face of PR and how we help our clients take advantage.
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One of the great big whopping lies about social media is authenticity.

Because – let’s face it – there isn’t much that’s authentic about social media. There’s lots of spin, cherry-picking, and bright-side propaganda from both individuals and brands going on. Few people and brands are truly genuine about their attitudes, personalities and opinions on social channels.

Why?

Because few people are authentic when they are being watched. When you are being scrutinized you put your best face forward. It’s only natural. And for brands social channels are for marketing and communications. In other words, “planned” content. Planned content, by its nature, is not authentic.

So let us count and debunk some of the most popular myths about social media authenticity:

Myth #1: Consumers demand that brands be authentic on social media

Reality: Consumers want brands to fit within their perception of what the brand stands for. What people really mean by saying they want brands to be “authentic” is that they want brands to be on message. To reflect their brand. If the brand strays outside of the boundaries of that perception – they are routinely punished for it.

Take last year, for example, when the American Rifleman magazine published a tweet that read in part “Good morning, shooters” right after the Aurora, Colorado mass shooting.  American Rifleman – which is a magazine for, well, shooters – was savaged for it. Its tweet, while badly timed, was most definitely authentic. In the storm that followed the publication deleted not only the tweet, but also its entire Twitter account. Why?  It’s too risky being authentic when it means supporting guns and bullets.

A second example is Chik-Fil-A. It is a brand that is authentically conservative Christian. That philosophy is built into the brands DNA (the restaurants are closed on Sundays as a result). Chick-Fil-A found itself out of the frying pan and into the fire last year for speaking out against gay marriage. It’s a stance that’s about as authentic as you get, but no one was celebrating that fact.  Chick-Fil-A’s opinions led to boycotts and people demanding that Chik-Fil-A keep its authentic opinions to itself.

Myth #2: People are authentic on social media

Reality: People lie like crazy on social media. And if they aren’t outright lying they are certainly painting their lives in the most wonderful light. Facebook has turned us all into our own private publicists. That’s why restaurant and vacation photographs are so popular – look at me doing awesome things! Few people write about the daily drudgery of their lives or the challenges of being married or a parent. A recent survey about women and dishonesty on social networks was very revealing.

Here’s what the Telegraph noted in its story on the survey:

“According to the OnePoll survey, one-third of women surveyed admitted to “dishonesty” on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter at some stage.  Almost one in four admitted to lying or exaggerating about key aspects of their life online between one and three times a month while almost one in 10 said they lied more than once a week.”

I think it is safe to say men would likely rank about the same. Don’t we all what our lives to appear more glamorous or important to our friends, family and colleagues?

Myth #3: Brand authenticity is appreciated and rewarded on social media

Reality: Not even close. Do you want to know what is really authentic? Mistakes. We all make them. But if you’re a brand and you make a mistake on social media? Then you get a kick to the head for it – even if you retract it and apologize.

Look what happened when American Apparel tweeted out information about a sale they were having just before a big storm – just in case people got “bored” riding it out.  The storm, unfortunately, was Hurricane Sandy. Hundreds, if not thousands of people turned on American Apparel on social channels to rip them about their tweet – even though it was written before the storm struck.

Or how about Kenneth Cole’s tweet linking the riots in Cairo with a sale of his shoes? He was hammered for this error in judgement even after apologizing for it.

Myth #4: Authenticity humanizes brands and that behavior is rewarded

Reality: Human beings don’t run the social media channels at brands. Groups of people do. And those groups are usually PR and marketing experts and all they are trying to do is sell things: messages, brand identity and products and services. Brands are a lot of things, but human isn’t one of them.

But that doesn’t stop “human emotions” from occasionally making its way onto brand social channels. And when that happens? Trouble. Nestle is a perfect example of this. When its Facebook page was attacked by Greenpeace activists angry about the brand’s use of palm oil and its connection to destroying rain forests, the flustered community manager at Nestle reacted in a most human way: he become frustrated.

And when he vented this frustration through a few snarky remarks about the rudeness of the activists, he was, of course, roundly and loudly denounced and criticized for reacting like, well, a human being.

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What do you think about authenticity on social media? Another buzzword? Or do you think it is what makes social media social? Head over to High Talk where this post originally appeared and contribute to the comments.

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