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Social media and PR: Five ways to avoid putting your digital foot in your mouth

“Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t want plastered on a billboard with your face on it.” Erin Bury’s warning rings true, especially as social media evolves into something more than its creators ever expected. Being authentic on social media is essential, very few manage to do it at all, let alone well. Others regularly screw up, with far-reaching consequences.

You can’t open Twitter anytime without reading about someone being offended about something that someone else said. No one is immune: CEOs, brands, and anyone who wants to make an image for themselves or a company online are at risk.

If you remember the backlash Delta Air Lines faced when a disappointed, well-known political pundit voiced her displeasure, you’ll know exactly how easy it is to put your digital foot in your mouth.

When challenged or under scrutiny, many brands and business leaders retreat into a world of scripted-sounding dialogue; making their tweets sound like the last 45 seconds of any dry medical commercial. Let’s take Uber for example. Earlier this year they were facing London lawmakers in an incredibly high-stakes situation. Scrambling to gain public support and sway opinion, their PR campaign included a series of tweets, starting with this:

Robotic sounding, right? I’ll guarantee that the rest of the points in that thread are copy-pasted out of a PowerPoint presentation. The response from the public was prolific and widely derisive. Rather than battling on, Uber’s social marketing team seem to give up and withdraw back into their shell.

Let’s take a close look at this tweet thread as a case study so that something can be learnt by the rest of us.  If you’re going to have a voice on social media:

1) Mean it

I sincerely doubt the social media writer who wrote that Uber piece was really feeling that passionate. It showed, especially in the follow up tweets to the thread. Reply tweets immediately challenged Uber on not paying taxes, under-paying their drivers and (hard to escape this one) called them out on their future vision: “Hows the driverless cars coming along? What will happen to the 40k drivers you’re so concerned about then?” @DickyBirdie1555

Bottom line is that the company cares more about their bottom line than their workers, and they should have owned it. There was a much smarter way to handle this situation. Imagine, for example, if the thread focused on the number of dollars earned and the number of London-based rides like they did in Montreal, Canada. That would have been more authentic to the brand and less vulnerable to complaints.

2) Make it clear that you are the expert

The London government’s reasons for threatening Uber’s licensing were due to safety and insurance concerns. Safety was raised partly due to the scandals within the company but also to do with the lack of regulation on car maintenance. If Uber cars are as reliable as taxis, they should talk about it!

In the US, Uber provides insurance for its drivers while they’re driving with the app active… but it’s not clear if they provide the same service in the UK. This is something they should have addressed and made visible to the public if it was positively the case.

3) Use your words

Except for possibly chatspeak, acronyms don’t belong in your tweets. For example, where Uber wrote “… the same DBS background checks…” could have just been background checks. Other words included that you will find on any “do not tweet” list are:

-Technical jargon

-Words with double meaning

-Repetitive phrases

Rule of thumb? Be a real person, sound like you are talking to real people and keep it simple.

4) Focus on the story

Particularly on social media, people care about the experience you are (or want them to be) experiencing. They don’t care for prepared statements — save those for the courtrooms. What the average Jane and Joe Bloggs today look for is adventure, experiences, and connections. Give them that with every post you send (or every tweet thread you create). Make it positive and something they can emotionally buy into.

5) Explain the benefits

No fan wants to know what you get out of the deal; they’re only concerned with what they get. Always focus on what they get, not what you do or make. People assign value to a product or service by how they think it benefits them. Failing that, try using the “dovetailed outcome,” a technique that clearly shows the win-win. Be clear about what’s in it for both you and your customer.

How would I have written this thread of tweets? The message would have been something more like this (but keep in mind most of these numbers are made up!):

Every day 20,000 rides are shared between Londoners and Uber drivers. That puts 75,000 pounds into the local economy.

Our 40,000 drivers keep 75% of this, and we are earnestly doing everything we can to keep your livelihood safe and secure.

London wants to stop us from achieving our goals, claiming we are unsafe. Safety, to all of us, is the forefront of our service.

We provide insurance and background checks for drivers. Our app tracks riders’ location and ensures payment protection.

Thank you, all 720,000 Londoners, who have signed the petition to keep Uber in London.

Also included in every tweet would be a picture of a famous Londoner happily catching an Uber. Why happy celebs? Because the fact is celebrities influence most of us, whether we like it or not. And like a fire alarm tells you that it’s socially acceptable to flee the building, faces in photos let you know what is socially acceptable to feel about a post.

By using all 5 of these steps on a tweet campaign, it’s easy to create a story that doesn’t begin with what Uber wants, but what they provide and why Uber’s story matters to the reader. It’s useful to remember that every time you post something on social media you either add value, take up space, or lose credibility. Post wisely!

Sarah Pearce is a professional speaker, business coach, social strategist and author of Online Reputation: Your Most Valuable Asset in a Digital Age. 
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