Courteously stirring the social media pot

For all the successes people herald about how social has bridged the gap between organizations and their customers, we've perhaps created a bigger chasm between us.

Over the better part of the last decade, I've had the good fortune to work in two areas I really enjoy – PR and digital media. I have seen the evolution of both (sometimes driven by the other), which has ultimately landed us where we are today. We've seen companies interject themselves – sometimes awkwardly – into digital spaces. (Second Life comes to mind.) We've also seen individuals and groups create change – sometimes equally as awkward – via social media.

This has been somewhat top of mind for me recently as I have seen a few people commenting online about rude tasting-room staff at some local wineries, while employees from other tasting rooms have chosen to “throw back” some comments of their own on the same thread. At that moment, I realized we have all lost a bit of our manners, perhaps.

Even more recently, I read a note from someone who also toes the line between the social and corporate/business sides of things that contained the words “the corporations” in a bit of online commentary. I realized that, for all the successes and “great” things that people like to herald about how social has bridged the gap between organizations and their customers and constituents, we've perhaps created a bigger chasm between us.

This isn't to say there is not a place for using social – as an individual or otherwise – to air a grievance or get something done. This is to say that we've essentially created a public space where we stir the pot with one another versus the private ones (calling customer service, walking into your bank, having a closed-door conversation with a colleague) to which we “used to” be relegated.

Empowerment is good – for everyone. An airline can now see – in real time – complaints (and even compliments) from customers and respond in kind. Individuals can share an experience at an event, drawing (or scaring away) other people. Companies can actively reach out to people with whom they would like to communicate in a slightly altered version of the advertising/direct marketing/media relations way that had been done for years.

What empowerment is not about is holding the other party over the barrel. Businesses small or large shouldn't be burying customers in any venue – and it helps to be aware of what they write in an email). Individuals also need to stop pulling the DYKWIA? (Do You Know Who I Am?) attitude with brands and other organizations.

So before we all have our toys taken away and go sit in opposite sides of the room, how about we agree to disagree on certain things and actually be interested in participating in a dialogue. Brands: don't be surprised when people want something tangible for liking you on Facebook or following you on Instagram. Everyone else (myself included): act as you would were you actually in front of the person you're addressing via that social channel.

We have a great opportunity to continue breaking down barriers that previously existed. Doing really simple things such as publicly clarifying how your organization is using social media for customer care or connecting communications, customer service, leadership, and other teams before an issue happens are just a few ways we PR professionals can help.

If you really break it down, we all get a C+ for the last decade-plus. How about we go for Dean's List in 2014?

Tom Biro is VP of Allison+Partners' Seattle office. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached at or on Twitter @tombiro.

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