The social era is celebrated for bringing a new level of transparency to communications between companies and customers, but has it really? Without doubt, companies are being forced to embrace greater transparency with consumers, but are consumers returning the favor? Or are we in an era of asynchronous transparency--a one-way mirror where consumers demand brand openness and honesty while giving somewhat less of themselves?
During the mass media era, brands that could afford it enjoyed a cozy relationship with the limited and exclusive channels of mass communication. This was a time of opaque and sometimes misleading communications, with some brands abusing their power. Cigarettes were healthy, soda pop was good for infants, Lysol was a safe feminine hygiene and birth control product, magazine "seals of approval" were bought rather than earned, DDT was the benefactor of all humanity, and deep, dark tans saved people from the unhealthy horror of natural, pale flesh.
Consumers of past generations had little leverage to encourage transparency on the part of large brands; instead, this power was wielded by the government and professional organizations. For example, after decades of misuse, the American Medical Association debunked Lysol's safety as a birth control method and the FTC cracked down on magazines selling commendation seals.
Today, consumers possess substantially greater power thanks to the democratization of media. Anyone can launch a blog, a YouTube video or a wall post within a brand's Facebook page. While any single consumer complaint may go unheard or unanswered, there are an overabundance of examples of companies forced to face the music based on the actions of a few empowered consumers. Companies such as Delta, Nestle, GoDaddy, United, Motrin, Gap, Tropicana, Maytag, California Milk Processor Board, Marriott, National Pork Board and Groupon have had to address, defend, apologize for and change practices as a result of protests launched from social media, and this list is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
But has transparency become more of a one-way street? Are consumers being as honest and transparent as brands are expected to be? That's a question I posed to some peers while attending the recent ANA Digital and Social conference, and our professional discussion quickly turned into a cathartic bonding session. Tale after tale was shared, the kind that social media professionals only tell each other:
- A social media manager had to defend his bank against claims of account hacking made by a woman who said erroneous withdrawals were repeatedly being made. The bank determined a former boyfriend was responsible, but the woman continued to post accusations in an apparent attempt to shame the bank into reimbursing what her boyfriend had stolen. My peer was frustrated because the consumer felt free to lob many false claims and garner emotional support from others while the financial institution had its hands tied--it was bound by privacy rules to keep the facts of the situation private.
- A consumer packaged brand faced an ugly incident when a consumer emailed an image of a cockroach found in a box of snacks and threatened to post it on social channels unless a settlement was offered. The company put the social media team on alert to watch for mentions while it investigated the claim. Eventually, evidence was found that proved the claim fraudulent, but the social media team had already wasted a great many hours planning an unnecessary emergency response.
- One person attending the conference was ashamed that a friend leveraged his considerable Klout score to scam a new cell phone. Weeks after purchasing a phone, the friend dropped it in a toilet, killing the device. Rather than admit he was at fault, the friend tweeted how the phone was a "piece of sh!t," and soon was offered a replacement at no cost.
Is this the transparency we envisioned?
One friend noted that consumers regularly make mistakes when posting gripes on his brand's Facebook page, such as mixing up his brand's products for a competitor's and failing to follow necessary assembly instructions. Mistakes will happen--we're all human, right? But are brands given the same leeway to make honest mistakes? In one well-known case, an employee made the horrifying but predictable error of posting a crude tweet to Chrysler's Twitter profile rather than his personal account; not only did the employee lose his job but Chrysler showed the agency the door. Should an entire organization have to pay for an understandable split-second mistake of a single employee?
I'm not trying to play the victim card on behalf of "the man"--brands still possess a lot of might in paid, owned and earned media--but can we really embrace social media transparency in only one direction? If a former employee has the right to blast a company in Twitter for mistreatment, does that company have the same right to reveal the employee's performance and discipline history? If a consumer can report every perceived slight or insult when dealing with a company's customer service representatives, can the brand report every vulgar tirade or threat made by the consumer on those same calls?
If you read this blog, you know that I am as aware as anyone of the new reality of brand-consumer relationships, but I wonder about the implications of this transparency imbalance. Might brands begin to seek the same transparency demanded by consumers; for example, when a consumer posts a service issue to a public channel such as Facebook, is it feasible for the company to secure permission to publicly share customer and incident particulars that formerly would have been kept secret? Or might some brands throw up their hands in disgust and abandon certain sorts of service and response via social channels, frustrated that consumers can initiate any claim in public channels while demanding brands keep the particulars of their situations private?
Is social media fated to be a channel of asynchronous transparency, or will brands and consumers share equal rights and obligations in the future? Your thoughts, opinions, criticisms and stories are welcome--please comment below!