Social media: without rules you get unpredictable (and perhaps embarrassing) results

By Chris Bucholtz

In Linda Ellerbee’s book And So It Goes, she tells the story of preparing for a top-of-the-hour news break when news and footage arrived in the studios of the terrible air crash at Tenerife in the Canary Islands – to this day, the world’s worst aviation disaster. With no time to lose, she scrapped her prepared material and rushed the story of the two doomed 747s on the air, complete with footage of the flaming airliners. She ended her report “with a poignant line about 576 people whose vacations had ended in death,” she wrote.

Then, beaming with pride in her quick-witted reportorial skills, she heard the commercial break start. “We’re American Airlines!” sang the gleeful chorus in the ad. “Doing what we do best!”

That was clearly a problem. Not only was it wildly inappropriate and guaranteed to infuriate the advertiser, but there were rules to prevent it from happening. As a matter of course, airline advertisers have it in their contracts that their ads will be pulled from the air for a set period of time following an aviation disaster. Ellerbee broke the news, but also broke the rules by skipping part of the process at NBC and not allowing enough people to know what she planned to air.

At least Ellerbee made an honest mistake in getting the news out rapidly and bypassing the rules. In social media, however, most of the time there are no rules and precious few chances to catch mistakes.

You might argue that this is because social media moves so fast that there’s no time to put rules into place or check for accuracy or errors. Which accounts for this tweet:

Authorities in #Seattle say they’ve never seen anything as horrific as Thursday’s deadly #shooting spree, watch live: on.cnn.com/cnndcl2

What’s that, CNN? You want me to watch a deadly shooting spree live? What kind of a psycho do you think I am? Oh, wait… I get it. As an editor would have, too, had there been one to make sure this tweet was worded more sensitively.

Here’s another great example of this delivered by Mark Schaefer on the Business 2 Community blog:  a post in the Mayo Clinic’s “Pregnancy Week by Week” blog tackles the devastating topic of recovery from an ectopic pregnancy, but fails to be self-aware enough to realize an advertiser would be presenting images of cute children’s clothing right next to the blog. While mourning would-have-been mothers learn how to cope with their loss, baby outfits are flashed at them. Extremely uncool.

Again, having some rules in place is a good idea. If the Mayo Clinic’s blog is going to tackle some serious issues – as well it might – it should have a contingency in place to alter the content displayed with those more serious posts. This rule should be checked before the poster hits the “publish” button.”

But having rules isn’t enough – you also need to have people in social media roles who are smart enough to follow them. That may mean the one social media person you have is extra sharp – or, in the case of CNN or a larger brand, you might also have an editor who can check on the rules before a Tweet or a post or an update goes out.

Too many businesses still run their social media efforts on the cheap and as an afterthought – which is an awful idea, since nothing is more effective at communicating your sloppiness and unprofessionalism to a wider audience than social media.

Don’t fall into that trap. If social media is something that’s worth doing for your business, it’s something that’s worth doing right – and that may be with written policies and oversight.