Opinion

You can't automate social media engagement, argues PRSA's Mickey Nall

Date: 17 April 2013 16:36

The siren song of “automation” can be tough to resist these days. Schedules are busy, professional demands are high and efficiency and productivity are must-haves. Automating daily tasks can make it that much easier to get through your “to do” list and still get some sleep.

There’s something fundamentally wrong, though, about automating social media engagement. Call it anti-social media, if you will. If you’ve ever received a painfully generic automated message when you connect with someone new on Twitter or LinkedIn, then you know what I’m talking about. They’re disingenuous, painful to read and, frankly, a bit insulting.

Still, I get that many of us simply don’t have the time to respond to all the requests and follows we receive in a day, and that automation is one solution.

Adweek, for example, recently published an article suggesting that automation represents the “future of helping firms escape the circle of PR hell that is social media.” The article quoted Scott Gulbransen, director of social business strategy for tax-preparation service H&R Block, as saying, "When there's a large workforce of people and unexpected things happen, what they say in social can be hard to rein in during different times.”

If I understand him correctly, Gulbransen is saying that having the ability to push out a targeted, social media response to numerous company locations and employees will better help to contain issues when they arise. And, he should know.

H&R Block recently experienced a social media backlash when 600,000 of its clients’ tax returns were delayed by as much as six weeks due to a computer glitch. When the company’s clients took to social media in response, creating a “Demand H&R Block Refund Our Filing Fees” Facebook page where they could collectively vent their frustrations, the company was unprepared to manage the fallout. Nor was it prepared to supply its 10,000 retail outlets with suitable messaging.

Altimeter Groups highly respected industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang is another who suggests that brands need software to help them out of “PR pickles.” He points to a number of helpful trouble-shooting features – “tag-and-flag,” “keyword associations” and “watch lists” for high-risk employees – that new technologies are providing.

One such technology claims to turn company employees into “social advocators” by delivering branded content and messaging through a desktop plug-in on employee computers. Employees can then “customise” the content with personal messages and instantly share it across social media.

But if a “hands-off” approach to social media that limits human intervention makes you nervous, maybe it should, as Progressive Insurance learned the hard way last summer.

The company, which sells insurance for cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats, recreational vehicles and homes, made headlines for a series of indifferent automated tweets in response to criticism regarding a legal battle to which it was a party. The company replied to each negative tweet with the pre-programmed message that, “This is a tragic case, and our sympathies go out to Mr Fisher and his family for the pain they’ve had to endure. We fully investigated this claim and relevant background, and feel we properly handled the claim within our contractual obligations.”

The Progressive social media team responded with that message more than a dozen times, and critics excoriated the company’s indifference. Can you imagine if that problem had been magnified by asking each of Progressive’s more than 24,000 employees to post the exact same message to each of their social media pages?

My point is that, while automation technology may have a place in social media, brands don’t need software to get them out of “pickles.” They need smart, capable communicators and solid crisis communications plans. Relying on a software package to prepare you for your next crisis may be penny-wise from a time-saving standpoint, but it’s pound foolish in the long term. Algorithms and “push” notifications are not enough. Practitioners must be engaged and actively involved in managing and responding to the dynamic and ever-changing variables that crisis situations present.

Mickey Nall is CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)

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