When the Coach Takes the Field: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas

In our ongoing Social Media Ethical Dilemma series, we’ve discussed a number of scenarios in which clients had asked SHIFT to not only help develop their online strategy, but also lend in interacting with their publics.

In this, our final installment in the series, I’ll outline a situation that we wrestled with quite a bit, both internally and with the client, to make sure we were doing “the right thing.”

The client was a division of a large entertainment company.  They came to us with a mission — to both monitor and engage directly with fans online, through a variety of their public channels.  They needed dedicated arms & legs, since, despite the company’s megalithic size, the Social Media stuff was being managed internally by only one person. In their words —

“We have to be on these channels and interacting with our customers, and there isn’t the budget right now for us to hire a full team.  Scale is really our key issue, and since SHIFT gets social media, we’re trusting you to be our eyes, ears and voice to these audiences.”

The client made their case: SHIFT employees were engaged on their behalf, and were being paid to serve as advocates, just as an employee would be; further, they would be treated by the client as full members of their in-house team.  They’d be trained on corporate standards and agreed-upon rules of engagement; they’d have access to corporate resources, etc.

We still balked.  Until they said —

“Can’t we just try it out?  We trust you. And because we know SHIFT will be a good coach, it might convince the higher-ups to invest in a bigger internal team.”

We relented.  As noted earlier, this is still a new area.  The idea of being a “player-coach” was intriguing: we’d map and execute on the plays, until the internal team could be built up.

Here were the ground rules we worked out with the client:

• While we would not proactively identify ourselves as SHIFT, we could use our own discretion re: revealing  ourselves as agency reps acting on the client’s behalf, without repercussion from the client.
• Anything that was borderline or controversial, we would flag and get approval on before posting a response.
• We would not blog or tweet as the company; this was still the responsibility of the client contact.

Guess we did okay, because after a number of months working the monitoring/response route, the client then asked us to extend our work.  They asked us to proactively engage with users that utilized the client’s content but hadn’t engaged (e.g., by posting comments).

AngeldevilWe set some strict parameters on what that interaction would look like.  Basically we gently reached out to consumers, based on their demonstrated enthusiasm for the client’s content, and encouraged them to share their feedback more often; we let them know we were around for any questions or concerns.

This spadework soon created an uptick in connections, without any negative comments.  The pilot work helped make the case for our internal contact that users were open to proactive communication from the brand, and potentially to even more robust dialogue… which meant that investing additional budget on internal resources was now a real possibility.

We didn’t screw anything up.  Nobody was hurt.  In fact, everyone all around was happy. We provided genuine value to consumers and to the client.

Like a coach who knows every play backward and forward, we are left wondering when to take to the field and when to stay on the sidelines.



Posted on: April 5, 2010 at 9:01 am By Todd Defren
19 Responses to “When the Coach Takes the Field: Social Media Ethical Dilemmas”

 

Comments
  • Simon says:

    Hi Todd,
    This and all the posts you have done on the Ethical Dilemma have been very helpful. I think your company has done a great job at walking the line. I think that the mere fact that you question this up front to make sure it is a good idea is very refreshing. My company is 2 people. 1 Designer and Me the Social Media person.
    I have a small issue when someone asks if I will be writing all their blogs and Facebook posts. My stance is that if I become the voice of your company then when you try to change that, people will know this. I know there are ways to get around it, BUT…I want them to feel the sense of accomplishment when they get their first comment on their blog, or when they get their first Fan. My way is to walk them through with baby steps, even if they are a one man shop. I feel I have a lot of contact with my clients so they know that I am here to help.
    Thanks again for the wonderful insight!

  • Karen says:

    It’s a fair point, Lionel. The company has to weigh the benefits of immediate scale (and the agency usually being on-target) with the pitfalls of lack of transparency.

    While your suggestion that it’s better to be upfront from the get go is well taken, the likelihood is that the community will write off the agency as flacks; not to be taken seriously; not true spokespeople.

    It’s a gray area on a fine line!

  • I’m a little late in leaving a comment here, but this is such a great topic. I do social media consulting for a marketing firm; I have a background in PR; and many companies are outsourcing these days because they simply do not have the budgets to hire and invest in a full-time social media staff. In a perfect world, brands should interact directly with their customers, but that isn’t always a realistic option-especially now when budgets are tight and many companies are new to social media. I have to agree with James…as long as you are running all questionable posts or comments by the company’s marketing or communications manager, and they are still engaged in the process, how is this different from hiring an account manager, publicist or company spokesperson from an outside firm? I think the key is educating the client, bringing them into the process, and working closely with them. As long as that is happening (and there is no lying), does it really matter if the person is (or is not) an actual employee of the company posting on the other end? I think it’s all kinds of gray, here. (I also wonder, if there will ever be a time when transparency might take a backseat to genuine customer engagement? Couldn’t there be situations–like the one Todd described–where the transparency argument becomes a little… oh, I don’t know… ridiculous? Just wondering.)

  • kIM KOLB says:

    Hi Todd,
    This and all the posts you have done on the Ethical Dilemma have been very helpful. I think your company has done a great job at walking the line. I think that the mere fact that you question this up front to make sure it is a good idea is very refreshing. My company is 2 people. 1 Designer and Me the Social Media person.
    I have a small issue when someone asks if I will be writing all their blogs and Facebook posts. My stance is that if I become the voice of your company then when you try to change that, people will know this. I know there are ways to get around it, BUT…I want them to feel the sense of accomplishment when they get their first comment on their blog, or when they get their first Fan. My way is to walk them through with baby steps, even if they are a one man shop. I feel I have a lot of contact with my clients so they know that I am here to help.
    Thanks again for the wonderful insight!

  • Outsourcing your personality & brand is indeed an issue, but one which you conquered via client training and immersion into their daily social media arena.

    The thing I’m concerned about– which so many others seem to harp on and on about is: transparency. I’m glad nothing negative happened, but if there was some backlash to your speaking on their behalf, wouldn’t the lack of transparency have been a further obstacle? Bringing to mind the thought: “Better to have been upfront about it from the start?”

    • Todd Defren says:

      It’s a fair point, Lionel. The company has to weigh the benefits of immediate scale (and the agency usually being on-target) with the pitfalls of lack of transparency.

      While your suggestion that it’s better to be upfront from the get go is well taken, the likelihood is that the community will write off the agency as flacks; not to be taken seriously; not true spokespeople.

      It’s a gray area on a fine line!

  • James says:

    Thx for another great post, but as Marc noted I can’t really see the problem here. If the client is willing to pay to a good and responsible company, just hire a guy dedicated to this client and send the client the monthly bill.
    I can’t understand why is this different from the classic PR world where you have an account manager for each client.

    Of course it’s always better to have this in house, but that as you pointer may require budget that isn’t easily allocated in large corporations, so outsourcing it may be the best answer.

    • Todd Defren says:

      James, obviously we are in accord. Again, I think there are purists out there who would look at this as a “cynical takeover of the corporate voice by an external marketer/flack/hack.”

  • Excellent post! This is something we encounter on a daily basis, and like you, we have set up some parameters about what we will do and what we wont. However, dealing with much smaller clients, we’ve since incorporated it into the client learning curve; allowing them to slowly get involved in the SM process while providing them back-up and inching them along to self-sufficiency. We’ve found that beyond the questions about ‘How will SM help my business?’ there lies a certain fear that SM is highly technical and that by “doing it wrong” they will waste their time, money and ultimately hurt their business, rather than add to it.

  • Tom O'Brien says:

    Hi Todd:

    I think this particular dilemma is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. I think it is perfectly fair for a company to hire people to act on their behalf. It is done all the time in call centers, customer service, and many other domains. (Outsourcing anyone?)

    The key thing to focus on is doing it well. Being really clear about exactly how the client wants to be represented, what the rules of engagement (and disclosure) are, and then sticking to what is agreed.

    One of our clients is one of the most customer focused brands you have ever heard of – and they have a partner (third party) who currently handles all of their inbound customer service issues. This same partner will handle all of their SM outreach activity. Though they are a third party, they are 100% trusted by the client because they have proven themselves over time. They are 100% immersed in the client’s policy, preferences, voice, etc.

    What is wrong with that?

    TO’B

    Tom O’Brien
    @tomob

    • Todd Defren says:

      “What’s wrong” – according to anyone who read the Cluetrain Manifesto – is that you can be said to be outsourcing your personality & brand. That’s the reaction I worry about. This needs to be done carefully, with training and trust, as you note.

  • Marc Meyer says:

    I wonder if its less about defining right and wrong and more about taking head on an issue that is not yours alone. I encounter this problem every day and when it’s a problem, there needs to be a solution. A solution that meets the approval of who? The client and that’s it. Ethically, You’re tasked with doing good work that’s tied to your expectations and your clients ultimate satisfaction; so the issue here is one in which we just need to define right now, what the ground rules are for this.

    I know I’m babbling but here’s my point Todd. It’s kind of like how the NFL defined or created the coach’s challenge rule (you know, the little red hanky they all carry and throw when they disagree with a call?) That rule was born out of an issue that plagued teams and coaches and players and fans for years. They needed a solution that everyone would be comfortable with. Once they did, the problem went away.

    In the social domain we’re all in right now, we’re still defining what is right and what is wrong and what is acceptable-and we’re not or shouldn’t be, held accountable by flash mobs pissed about our lack of authenticity and transparency. What matters is something that everyone( i.e. the client) is cool with, is results driven and can be repeatable. We need some benchmarks for this stuff!

    I think your dilemma was more about doing what was going to work for all parties involved and not pissing off the client and or their customers. That’s a challenge and one in which, once you solve it, you can refine it and share it with the rest of us that are faced with it every day.

    Good job.

    • Todd Defren says:

      Hi Marc – You hit the crux of my feelings with this line:

      “In the social domain we’re all in right now, we’re still defining what is right and what is wrong and what is acceptable-and we’re not or shouldn’t be, held accountable by flash mobs pissed about our lack of authenticity and transparency.”

      Having been one of Social Media’s earliest proponents, I am maybe oversensitive to accusations re: authenticity/transparency … Yet I also cannot argue with clients who want us to take the lead, i.e., provide a safe path to getting started.

  • Hi Todd,

    Good post. So if you didn’t proactively identify yourselves as SHIFT, yet you didn’t blog or tweet as the company either, would you say that you were technically blogging as SHIFT yet just not publicizing that you aren’t the company? Like the series!

    Amy

    • Todd Defren says:

      You made my head hurt with those nuanced distinctions! ;)

      • Haha, sorry to make your head hurt! So is it a “gray” area where you hope no one asks *who* it really is behind the veil?

      • Todd Defren says:

        I suppose that that is one way to look at it, i.e., if someone thought to ask “who is this?” it could be seen as a failure on our part to appropriately represent the brand (then again, it could just as easily be because the consumer thought our staff person was totally freakin’ awesome).

        Luckily it never came up.



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