Re-discovering your social compass — old rules for the new digital world

Social Media is lost without a social compass.”  So says Brian Solis in a thoughtful, and thought-provoking article written as a foreword to the new book “The Ethical Practice of Social Media in Public Relations,” by Marcia W DiStaso and Denise Sevick Bortree.

Here’s the thing.

Just as you would advise any newcomer to the social (digital) world — from teenager to grandparent — not to say anything you wouldn’t say face-to-face, brands need to follow the same guidelines.

Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to a consumer face-to-face.

Be transparent. Be honest.

But that can be hard to do in the digital space.  Messages get interpreted, and sometimes completely lost, in the telling.

Those who know me well have frequently heard me voice my inner struggle with the massive, worldwide experiment I believe we are undertaking with social media and digital communications in general — an experiment largely being conducted on digital natives — those born in the digital, social world — who know no other world.

I’m someone for whom the privacy of my conversations with friends was limited by the length of the telephone cord from my parents’ kitchen, under the door and into the dining room.  When friends called me, they ran the gauntlet of my father asking, with his frighteningly Royal Marine bearing, “Alice? Why do you want to talk to Alice? You only spoke to her yesterday.” Or my mother simply disallowing conversations with people who called but didn’t correctly announce themselves courteously on the phone before asking to speak to me.

I learned to pick the phone up and speak to people. I learned to write letters, by hand. I learned to make conversation with all kinds of people. I learned to pause before I needed to respond.

Now it’s an instant conversational free-for-all. One that’s not happening face to face, but digitally. Right out there in the open for all to see.

Will digital natives lose the ability to understand the subtle visual and audible cues and interactions that have taken hundreds, even thousands, of years to learn and master? Cues that help us understand inference, sarcasm, caution, playfulness, and a hundred other messages we hide in plain sight when we talk to people. Face to face.

Many times I have been shown a phone text, or a Facebook message, by a teenager close to me and asked the question “what do you think that means?” and “how should I answer?” My advice is usually “pick up the phone and ask them,” or “go meet them for coffee and talk it over.” (Advice not usually taken, by the way.)

It’s hard to understand messages when all you see on the screen is a few characters strung together. Even if they are softened by emoticons and other visual paraphernalia.

Because it’s so hard, it requires that we, as individuals, be far more aware of how our actions in the digital world are received, and understood — or misunderstood — by those to whom we are talking.

It requires we are even more careful of the impressions we leave. That we make ourselves clear, and that whatever we say we’d be happy to have shared anywhere, by anyone, at any time, and be OK with that share be attributed back to us.

Same with brands and companies and their communications on social. Advice from Mr Solis:

As you design your social media strategies and everyday content and engagement programs, let your social compass guide you. Consider in simulation, and definitely prior to their activation in networks, how your intentions will convert to desired impressions. Doing so helps you understand how your actions will elicit the reactions you want. Use your social compass to then lead you into each network with confidence and relevance to earn relationships and spark meaningful engagement.

Advice worth taking.