Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Faking social (or real life) engagement: How do you get to that point?

We talk and talk about transparency and authenticity in speakers, in social media, in corporate communications. And then, even as they're paying lip service to these ideals, some communicators figure it's just better to fake it.

Chipotle recently admitted that it faked a hack of its Twitter account as part of its 20th anniversary promotional campaign. Among the "positive" results of the fake hack:
Chipotle's Twitter account added more than 4,000 followers the day of the "hack," compared to its normal rate of adding about 250 followers a day. The supposedly hacked tweets, which have not been deleted, were retweeted about 12,000 times. By comparison, Chipotle's Twitter account usually sees about 75 retweets per day. Chipotle isn't the first brand to fake having its Twitter account hacked. Shortly after Burger King and Jeep had their accounts hacked in February, both MTV and BET  decided to stage their own hacks to get in on the press coverage.
Great job boosting the numbers...oh, snap. Aren't we supposed to be aiming for quality of followers, rather than just quantity? Does getting people to follow you over a fake count as engagement, or just trickery? "It was definitely thought out: We didn't want it to be harmful or hateful or controversial," said Chris Arnold, a Chipotle spokesperson. Somehow "honest" didn't make that list. Arnold also said, "It's certainly not a well you can go to often." Then why go there at all?

Add money to the faking, and you can get into even more trouble: Samsung's PR firm was just revealed to have offered money to bloggers for posting "organic" comments on Stack Overflow app forums, as a way of promoting its app-development challenge....aaaand one of the bloggers approached in this way outed the bribe.

Not all fakery happens aforethought. More often, you set something up that becomes a slippery slope. In many companies, the slippery slope begins when communicators start ghost-writing blogs for CEOs. The thinking? It's better to have a CEO blog than not, but the CEO lacks the time to blog, or might go off-message. Yet that ghosted blog robs the effort of a true power tool in social media, the unique and authentic voice of the leader. Ironically, that fake CEO voice isn't going to engage anywhere near as well as the actual CEO would. The perfectly sensible alternative, no blog, seems less popular than the fakery.

Some fakery is well-meaning. On occasion, a client will ask whether we should include "trainees" who already know how to deliver a message well, to serve as good examples for the rest of the group. On occasion, they ask whether they should plant some questions in the audience for my lecture, so I don't wind up hearing crickets at Q&A time. My response to both ideas? "Please don't do that." I'll take my crickets and my not-polished trainees, thanks. As a speaker trainer and media trainer, I'm in a trust relationship with the people I'm training. One whiff of fakery undoes my credibility in seconds.

Each of these fake variations, whether planned or not, signals an underlying lack of comfort with uncertainty. We might not get "enough" Twitter followers. Our anniversary might pass unnoticed by anyone but us. Our experts might find out the hard way, by making a mistake in a workshop, that they need to improve their speaking skills. The speaker might suck all the oxygen out of the room and generate no questions, or our audiences are surly and sit on their hands. So the thinking seems to be "let's make some certainty, even if we need to fake that."

Communicators without strong muscles around uncertain outcomes might want to take their cue from the sciences. This post, Communicating the uncertainty in science is necessary to improve public confidence and decision-making of non-specialists, introduces a new guide, Making Sense of Uncertainty. The thinking behind it: If you avoid talking about uncertainty, you'll miss important discussions.

That's also true whether the conversation takes place in social networks, training rooms or auditoriums. The followers who stick with you will do so because you're authentic, not because you pulled a stunt once. The trainees who do the best in my workshops trust me to create a safe place where they can try, fail, learn, try again and succeed. And I always get questions when I speak, perhaps because I make sure the audience knows I'm there as much to listen to them as I am to speak.

Whether you're trying to gin up activity where none exists, or smooth out the perceived rocky path when your experts are being trained, stop and think again. The real reason to embrace uncertainty and the authenticity that comes with it is your credibility. In all these examples, I'll wager not one person thought "what if we get caught?", but you certainly should. Is it worth it to miss the real conversation and perhaps lose your credibility?

I've got two smart workshops for communicators this fall, and you get good discounts if you register this month for Be an Expert on Working with Experts on October 8, or The Keys to Confident Public Speaking on October 17. Join us and register today!

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