Top Five Elements of a Good Social Media Practice

I have been putting food on the table using what is now called online/social media/digital since 1997 and I am often struck by no matter how things change, they remain the same.  I am lucky enough to work in a field (social media) in which there is ALWAYS something new around the corner, but it is these bright, shiny objects that often lead to our downfall as practitioners.

I wrote about the topic all the way back in 2009, but many of the basic precepts on how to build a successful social media practice, whether in-house or at an agency, remain the same. Even as time has passed, it just convinces me more that the magic in the digital world is NOT in the bright, shiny objects, rather in their strategic application.  In other words, you can have all of the Facebook or Snapchat skillz that one can muster, but if you do not have a fundamental understanding of communication or marketing or what your organization or client want to achieve (and how to define success), you will be doing digital or social for its own sake.

And you will quite possibly fail.

So here are a few thoughts on what I think makes for a successful  social media offering, if you are doing so for an employer (in house) or for an agency (for clients).  As always, I welcome your comments.

1. Always start with your organizational objectives.

The one thing that will keep you from jumping on the latest and greatest social media platform (remember Ello?) is one simple question:  how does using this tool fit into helping my team achieve our organizational objectives?   If you can make a business case about how something will lead to more engagement, dialogue or

Remember Ello?
Ello said a quick “goodbye.”

interaction with the people with whom you want to dialogue, then you may be on to something.

If you want to show off that you are on the vanguard and use a tool simply because a competitor is using, it’s brand new or your CEO read about it in the Wall Street Journal that morning, well, that may or may not work for you.  For example, what brands are starting to figure out now is Snapchat.  But if your target audience is over 30, it’s time to move on and put your resources behind a medium where your audience congregates.   Snapchat is not a fit. It’s that simple.

Bright, shiny ≠ what’s best for you and your employer.

2. Read, read, and then read some more.

Again, the up side to doing social media for a living is that the only constant is change.  The down side is that you need to do a LOT of reading to keep up not just the tools, but the way that the industry is evolving. Intellectual curiosity is a must. Even when the hot platforms being introduced have leveled out, you still need to know how Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm could impact your client (um, pay-to-play is where it’s at), and when Twitter is finally going to build a Walled Garden around their data (it’s hard for me to see another successful revenue model).  In short, you need to see the obvious and not-so-obvious trends that are unique to our industry.

Cutting the cord on cableAnd that trend might not be as obvious as you think.  For example, last December, Pew Internet reported that cable and satellite providers continue to hemorrhage customers:

15% of American adults are now “cord cutters” – that is, they indicate that they once had a cable or satellite TV connection, but no longer subscribe. Another 9% of Americans have never had a cable or satellite subscription at all, meaning that a total of 24% of Americans currently do not subscribe to cable or satellite TV in their homes.”

If you work in the online environment, you need to not only be aware of this, but also recognize that YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and others come via an Internet connection and think long and hard about what this means to your internal or external clients.  The only way that you are going to be able to identify opportunities before others do is to stay current and think hard about the opportunities that are presented by trends.

3.  Know that reputations can take decades to build, but can be taken down online in ten minutes.

In what is still a surprisingly underpopulated field of practice, online reputation management is where the rubber hits the road between knowing who is saying what about your organization or its people, when it matters, and if and when to react.  Fifteen years ago, you had 24 hours to put out a press release. Now, when something goes very wrong online that threatens your organizational reputation, you need to:

  1. Spot that threat or opportunity through human means (good community managers) and/or technology (comprehensive monitoring tools);
  2. Know where the tipping point is – having an innate sense of if and when to respond or react;
  3. Have a list of people whom you can call upon who can either speak to the issue that is impacting your organization’s reputation;
  4. In the absence of #3, have a set of pre-approved messages based upon a good crisis communications plan that can at least show those who are watching online (and don’t forget that offline now follows online – traditional and print reporters now source leads from social media)  that you acknowledge that there is a problem and you are sensitive to their concerns.
  5. Know that when a crisis really gets bad, the top person in your organization needs to be the one to respond, even if it’s a series of tweets.  When someone goes very wrong in a crisis, people want to hear from the top person in your food chain.

4.  Be a good internal communicator.

Ask any student who has ever taken a class with me, and they will probably roll their eyes because I have said this so many times:  unless you are a sole practitioner, your most important audience is often internal. Especially in the world of social media, you are always teaching and selling, oftentimes to skeptical audiences. Be a good internal communicator So if you want resources in order to get things done, you need to a) get people to like you, and b) communicate the value of social media in ways that people will understand.  This can be as complex as putting together an all-emcompasing social media strategy or as simple as popping by a co-worker’s office to do a soft-sell on an idea that you are going to bring up in a meeting.   Building coalitions in-house when you do social is critical, yet is often one of the most undervalued skills a social media communicator can have.

5.  Groom the next generation of leadership so they can take your job.

This might seem a little counter-intuitive, but in many management positions that I have held, I have always thought that my job was to ensure that anyone who was interested and talented should be groomed to replace me one day.  And “replacement” does not need to mean something negative.  Many companies routinely spot good internal talent and move them to completely different areas outside of what they do.  They know that you can teach someone to be a subject matter expert, but you cannot teach them to be smart.

Richard Branson’s quote sums up an excellent philosophy:

Making every person on your team smarter and more empowered  multiplies the strength of your communications team, even if you are only a team of two.  So when you train people so well that they could leave (or take over your job) but incentivize them to stay, you have a winning combination and a much stronger team.

What it all comes down to:

These are just five elements in what could probably be 20 tips on how to build a very good internal or external social media practice, but in the end, it’s pretty simple:

  • Be smart and well-read;
  • Be a good internal communicator; and
  • Make everyone around you smarter and better.

Building and sustaining a career in social media is not easy.  But it’s even harder for those who don’t remember one of the most basic precepts of our profession:  it’s the “social” in social media that truly matters.

Twitter #Fail: Lionel Messi, Social Rookies and a PR Disaster

Lionel and His "Messy" Tax Conviction
Lionel and His “Messy” Tax Conviction


I have blogged about this for years, but about the dumbest thing that you can do in any organization is what many continue to do:  hand the keys to the social media apparatus to the youngest (and clearly, the one who understands social media – not) person in the office.  I wish I had kept count of how many interns end up running social because they happen to have Snapchat on their phones and a clearly the experts.

I could list the myriad reasons why this is just such a stupid idea, but it helps me prove my point when large organizations keep making fundamental mistakes using digital.  And I mean ROOKIE mistakes that the Interwebs smash back in your face only to create the exact opposite of what you had intended.  A PR disaster of your own making.

One of the most popular pieces that I have ever written was a 2012 rebuttal to someone who claimed that “Every Social Media Manager Should be Under the Page of 25.”  Thanks again for the publicity, Catherine, but in 2016, we are still making the same mistakes.

The latest example of this played out last week, when Barcelona FC, one of the best (and most profitable) soccer football clubs in the WORLD took stupidity to the next level and created the #WeAreAllLeoMessi campaign.

What Happened to Lionel Messi

As a brief backgrounder, Lionel Messi is one of, if not THE best soccer football player on the planet.  Mr. Messi’s genius does not seem to apply to his (pardon the pun) “messy” accounting when it comes to paying his taxes.  You see, already a Zillionaire, Mr. Messi seemed to forget to pay more than FIVE MILLION EUROS in back taxes to the Spanish government.  Oops.

Can We Have Some Gray Hair in the Room Please?

You see, anyone even with PR 101 skills would say nothing, issue a “no comment” (this is a personal matter for him and the team should not be communicating about his taxes dodging issues), or at best, if forced to, issue a short press release to the effect of “We are glad that this matter is behind us and Mr. Messi can focus his full attention on our upcoming season.”  Nope.

You Can’t Fix Stupid, But You Should

At some point, someone raised their hand and said, in the middle on European anxiety over their economies post Brexit, “I HAVE A GREAT IDEA. Let’s launch a Twitter campaign designed to drum up support for Leo.”  Whomever in that room said “yes,” or “SÍ” should be publicly flogged.

Here’s what the Barcelona Football Club tweeted:


So instead of the first rule of crisis communications, which is to AVOID THE CRISIS, someone inside the communications shop of one of the most profitable enterprises on Earth did the opposite and decided to ask the masses to support a man who made 36 MILLION EUROS last year and “forgot” to pay taxes.  That nearly 40 MILLION US DOLLARS.  That’s right.  In one year.  Their plea read:

“[T]he campaign is encouraging all Barça fans to express their sympathy for the greatest footballer in the world by voicing their unconditional support on social networks,” the club said. “By making it clear that #WeAreAllMessi, we want Leo to know that he is not alone.”

So let’s all rally around a dude who made more than many corporations last year and oops, forgot to stroke a check to the Spanish tax authorities.  Insert Homer Simpson “D’oh.”

The Backlash

People all over Twitter reacted as as a reasonable or even mediocre communications professional would expect, and that is with blind indignation over the club asking people to support a guy who dodged more in taxes last year than most of us will make in a lifetime.



and this is my personal favorite:

The Lesson That Never Seems to Get Learned

One would have thought that sports organizations that lead with their Twitter chins would have learned from such stupendous flameouts such as the #AskJameis Twitter Q&A which Deadspin called “A Predictable Mess,” that when

Famous Jameis
Famous Jameis

you have an athlete, celebrity or otherwise who has a checkered background (um, sexual assault allegations and crab leg shoplifting charges), you might not want to idiotically open up your organization to public opinion and seem 100% out of touch.

A seasoned communications professional, when he or she picked themselves up off of the floor laughing, would then have fired the person who came up with the idea. Yet many organizations continue to hand the social media and digital keys to inexperienced people who may know how to USE the tools in their personal worlds, but don’t know the damnedest thing about communications in the professional world.  SOCIAL MEDIA IS COMMUNICATIONS.  And increasingly, is crisis communications.

Keep doing it, guys.  Maybe someone will eventually get a clue.


More About Cancer Communications: Podcast with the Pros

For Immediate Release promo

Experts Talk About Cancer Communications

I am so very proud to be given the opportunity to be a semi regular on Shel Holtz‘s “For Immediate Release” podcast.  Shel has been doing communications and social for many years and is someone who I consider to the about the smartest (and nicest) people on the planet.  It is double the thrill when I get to talk about a topic that I have been talking about quite a bit on this blog: cancer communications.

So yesterday, I got to share a virtual microphone with two additional amazing people: Jennifer Stauss, a cancer advocate, entrepreneur, former broadcast journalist and PR whiz, and Doug Haslam, social media expert and a cancer advocate who for several years has done the Pan Mass Challenge TWO DAY bike ride to raise money for cancer research.

It’s not All Cancer All the Time though; we cover other topics too, like the Internet uproar over the now lower-case spelling of “internet” WHICH I REFUSE TO EVER USE.

So have a listen.

Here is the Ol’ Disclaimer

I said so verbally on the podcast, but this post, like every other darn word I have written or spoken in my career, does not necessarily reflect those of the National Cancer Institute or any other employer I have had since I got my first job at 15 years old.  Heck, I even have my own disclaimer page (keeps the lawyers happy).

Colonoscopies, CEOs, Cultures and Connection: Another Great FIR Podcast

Before I headed off to my Hong Kong adventure, one of my favorite gigs was being a correspondent on what I still think is the best podcast out there:  For Immediate Release, which is now the FIR Podcast Network.

Ike PIgott
Ike Pigott

So as you can imagine, it’s about ten times more fun when I get to be a panelist on an episode.  With Neville Hobson’s departure, Shel Holtz changed up the format a bit, but still kept the incredibly entertaining and informative content.  Today, I had the distinct pleasure

Paul Gillin
Paul Gillin

to be an FIR panelist again on today’s FIR #24.  I was on with Paul Gillin,  author and practitioner who specializes in social media for B2B companies, and my friend Ike Pigott, communication strategist, spokesman for Alabama Power and all-around smart guy.

In today’s podcast, we covered an amazingly wide variety of topics, including:

  • What will be a live colonoscopy broadcast on Periscope from the Mayo Clinic (yes, you read that right);
  • If CEOs should have active Facebook pages for engaging with stakeholders (this could be good – think Richard Edelman, or this could be bad – think Ross Perot);
  • The new Facebook Reactions buttons; and
  • A ton more.

It was an hour and a half of what I hope you will find both entertaining and informative.   Happy listening.


Why We Can’t Talk About Cancer

War on cancer

The views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any past nor present employers. Heck, I even have a whole disclaimer page.

Cancer communications – it’s hard

I have done lots of types of challenging communications work in my professional life: selling brands and ideas in the agency world, doing communications for the Securities and Exchange Commission during and after the financial crisis of 2008, for a Chinese conglomerate that went on to become the largest IPO in history, and now, a few years, work in cancer communications.

Cancer is, by far, the most challenging professional communications scenario I have ever faced. Communicating about Bernie Madoff was a piece of cake compared to cancer communications. Here’s why:

I learned this valuable lesson back in 2004 while in the chemo ward at Georgetown Lombardi Hospital with my mother, who was receiving treatment. For those of you who have been through it, you know that cancer treatment ultimately comes down to a lot of sitting around and waiting – and waiting. One day (while sitting around and waiting), I was engaged in conversation with a woman who was in one of the chemo chairs next to my mother and she told me one sentence that has stuck with me throughout my time doing cancer communications:

“Once the doctor says the words ‘You have cancer,’ you don’t hear anything else.”

I could go on about the need for a good a note-taking caregiver, but there are other resources for that. The point that I want to make is the difficulty of communicating about cancer. It’s complex, nuanced, can be confusing and misleading, yet there is more hope today than ever before. It’s hard.

The “C” word

For many people, in addition to freezing up when they hear the word “cancer,” there is still a stigma around simply having cancer, let alone talking about it. We are not that far removed from the days in which you hid grandma in the back room because of the shame of the disease, and heaven forbid you get something with embarrassing undertones, like Michael Douglas’s throat cancer or something like cervical or penile cancer.

Yet there are many people like my friends, Janet Freeman-Daily, who do a great job of helping to remove the stigma around cancer, in Janet’s case, lung cancer (making the point that not everyone who gets lung cancer smoked).  There is also my friend Jennifer Stauss, described in the Huffington Post as,The Inspiring Jennifer Windrum and the W.T.F. Campaign.”  There is still much work to be done, however, to remove the stigma of simply having one normal cell decide it wants to become a cancer cell.

Are we at war?

President Nixon signing the National Cancer Act in 1971.
President Nixon signing the National Cancer Act in 1971.

I’m not sure that the imagery and well-intentioned metaphors surrounding the fight against cancer convey a meaning that presents where we are in medicine.  For example, in 1971, then President Nixon (yeah, that guy) signed a bill marking the “War on Cancer.” Recently, Vice President Biden created a task force that is called the “Cancer Moonshot.” These were and are well intentioned and much needed metaphors, but as a communicator, I’m not sure that the words match the content. In a “war,” you have an enemy whom you are trying to kill. Is the enemy cancer cells? Who is the army? The government? Pharma? Academia? All three? In our first real Moonshot, we got to the moon and came back – several times. The lunar project was a success, and had a beginning, middle and an end. Cancer research and treatment does not.

There is no timeline for the “battle”

While many incredibly dedicated researchers (some of which I have the privilege of working with daily) do amazing work at cutting edge cancer treatment like immunotherapy, this also muddles the communications message, especially for those who have an advanced cancer. The Duke University glioblastoma vaccine story on “60 Minutes” last year presented some potentially good news, but it is so early on in the clinical trial process that we simply cannot know what will happen – and the sample size was only 22 patients. Does it present promise? Perhaps. Is it at a point at which it deserves national hype? No – because it’s simply too early in the process.

Most people don’t consume “complex”

The hard part about hearing things like “a billion dollars” and the word “cure” is that cancer is not that simple. It is highly complex. We have come to understand that cancer is a genetic disease. There are many types of cancer and although we make daily progress, it is a actually a series of insidious illnesses. You can knock back one type of cancer, but then the genes can mutate, become resistant to treatment, and you have to start all over again. And again.

No blood for oil protest.People, especially those who are watching loved ones suffer through cancer, want a FIX NOW, a simple slogan, a simple answer, a magic bullet. Most people even give me a quizzical look when I tell them that cancer is not just one disease. I believe that the media (both traditional and social) have taught us to learn in sound bites and something as complex and hard to understand as cancer research, diagnosis and treatment(s) just doesn’t add up.  “No blood for oil” is more easily remembered than a complicated argument as to why we evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.

Bumper sticker statements can much more memorable than nuanced, complex answers, even if the issue is highly complex. This is a tremendous challenge for those of us who communicate about cancer-related issues.

There is hope in cancer research and treatment and additional funding is a wonderful thing. But in comparison, a mere eight years elapsed from President Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech to the time that a man landed safely on the moon. We declared victory. We did it.   Boxed checked.

Take a look at the Food and Drug Administration’s explanation of how a drug goes from basic science, discovery and development to implementation and post-market safety monitoring.   MedicineNet says:

In the United States, it takes an average of 12 years for an experimental drug to travel from the laboratory to your medicine cabinet. That is, if it makes it [emphasis mine].

Combine this statistic with the complexity of cancer and the fact that only five in 5,000 drugs that enter preclinical testing progress to human testing (and that’s not even approval). That’s nuanced, complex and for many people, very hard to understand for a highly emotional issue. The laboratory portion alone can take 10 years or more. Yet this is part of the “war.” And you certainly can’t fit that on a bumper sticker.

Why communicating about cancer is so hard

Combine fear, emotion, hype, desperation, nuance, highly complex, scientific language, and differences in each and every single patients’ type of cancer, and you’ll find that it is very, very difficult to communicate the journey “to a cure” that so many people long for.

Like millions of people all over the world, I want resources, simple answers and a to declare “victory” on a horrible disease kills far too many people. My own mother died in April 2004 of non small-cell lung cancer. She was there as I took my first breath, and I was there as she took her last. But as a now cancer communicator, I know that the reality is just not that simple. Bumper sticker slogans are effective, but they don’t match the reality of what really happens in cancer research and treatment.

We are making tremendous progress, but you don’t “cure” cancer with a bumper sticker.


P.S.: Have I mentioned that the views expressed in this post are mine and mine alone? Good.