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As brands grow and mature, they take on a life and personality all their own. Now that companies are expected to actively participate in social media, this personality–their brand voice–can be difficult to establish, leading some to balk at this newfound responsibility.

This difficult transition is akin to a child approaching their teen years. My girlfriend’s ten-year-old son–who, to protect his anonymity, we’ll call Tron (he’ll think that’s cool)–is at the age where he is testing the limits of his freedom and exploring his own priorities. In child psychology this period of questioning and challenging authority is referred to as “being a pain the patootie.”

While most of the time Tron is a cheerful, obedient boy, he has his moments of resistance when, rather than unquestioningly following directions, he pushes back. Many of these excuses sounded familiar to me, and I realized that they are often similar if not identical to those offered by companies adjusting to the “everyone is a publisher” reality of social media.

Let’s take a look at some of his more popular challenges. Do you hear yourself or your executive leadership in any of these? If so, it’s time to ask yourself if you are indeed smarter than a fourth-grader.

“I’ll do it during the next commercial.”

This one invariably comes up when it’s time for his nightly shower. Tron is ensconced in a TV show and promises to take a five-minute shower so he doesn’t miss the next exciting development taking place on the Disney Channel. Never mind that the same episode will air approximately 4,327 more times this week, or that we can DVR his favorite shows. He’s busy.

Many companies pay lip service to the importance of social media engagement, but in practice dedicate a minimal amount of time and attention to it. Five minutes out of your day isn’t going to accomplish any goals or solve any business problems whatsoever (or get your stinky ten-year-old clean). Well-planned, well-executed strategies aren’t accomplished in whatever free time you try to fit them.

“That’s not what I meant.”

I find myself channeling my mother when I tell Tron to “engage brain before engaging mouth.” Regardless there are times when his opinion comes flying out before giving any consideration to how it will sound to others. When such insensitivity is brought to his attention, he’ll often say, “That’s not what I meant.”

Regardless of intent, the power of expression lies within how words affect others. It may not be sticks and stones, but as we have seen recently with both accidental (Chrysler) and intentional (Kenneth Cole) missteps, the words we use on social networking sites can indeed hurt. In the case of a brand, the party usually most hurt by our poor choice of words is us. The court of public opinion looks unfavorably upon those who misuse or abuse the social media pulpit. It pays to be acutely aware of the possible connotations and power of your words.

“I don’t feel like talking about it.”

When Tron has a bad day at school–whether or not we’ve received a call or a note home from the teacher–we know it immediately. A usually upbeat, singing, dancing, babbling kid is replaced by a sullen, disinterested slug. No matter what the problem, no matter whose fault it was, we encourage him to tell us about it. Of course at times he is less than forthcoming, saying, “I don’t feel like talking about it.”

The issue here is transparency; it’s easy to share your triumphs with others when you’re happy and excited. When the chips are down and you’re dealing with trouble, the natural response is to clam up. In the case of social media, you must remember that everyone on the web is a publisher. If you don’t talk about what went wrong with your company, others will.

What if they’re wrong? What if they’re misinformed? It’s one thing to issue a press release in an attempt to spin or explain away whatever mistake your company may have made. It’s another thing entirely to get out in front of the issue using your owned media channels and turn a potential tragedy into an opportunity. Believe it or not, your customers and the world at large will respect you and your openness (see also ComcastCares).

“Do I have to?”


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