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June 29, 2017

Twitter is a terrifying place—I don’t know why anyone goes there.

It’s a global pile-on in which the composer of the cleverest take-down becomes an instant hero. And if you’re the target, it scarcely matters if you deserve all the abuse, so long as the scoffing and mockery are sufficiently original and entertaining.

Oh sure, you can respond. This is social media; you can say whatever you want. But that completely unsubstantiated slam on you will get retweeted 523,742 times, while your factual rebuttal will be retweeted by you, your marketing director and your mother.

And it’s not like you can call out people for retweeting the nonsense. They’ll say, “I just thought it was funny,” and what can you say to that?

Stop being so thin-skinned! It’s only your livelihood.

But it’s nothing to worry about if you don’t get involved with anything that raises the ire of activists—except you own a pet retail store and you have live animals on site, not to mention things they eat and products that will affect their health and their day-to-day activities.

Animal activists never draw metaphorical targets on anyone without knowing the facts, do they?

About this time you’re wondering why you should ever go anywhere near social media. But you do realize that social media is free to talk about you whether you’re there or not, right?

The fact of the matter is that social media is how people share information on a mass scale today.

It’s very much a Wild West of commentary and criticism, except to the extent network administrators or hordes of users decide someone has gone too far. And you can’t really count on that to protect you. It’s like going into the town square to make the case that you’re the best pet retailer in the world. You can say anything you want to the crowd, but the crowd has the same power.

Conventional communication strategies usually tell a business to limit its message to the most bland and banal content possible. You want equality; you want dignity for everyone: “Everyone hug someone today.”

But even expressions that banal can get you attacked on today’s Twitter—ask Kylie Jenner about that. The prevailing definition of what’s “woke” and what’s not changes by the minute. And attempts to placate the most aggressive internet mobs can backfire in the form of blowback from the aggrieved nonconformist group of the moment.

My point here is not that no one can survive the rough-and-tumble of today’s social media environment. Those who do so skillfully profit nicely from it. But the rules of the online world are a bit askew from the instincts of most business owners, and that can lead to mistakes—both broad ones and very specific ones.

So I’m not going to presume to give you all the answers here, but I want to offer some basic guidelines to follow in building your social media reputation:

Don’t treat it like traditional advertising and marketing. You’re not placing an ad in tomorrow’s paper that you hope garners enough eyeballs to pay for itself. You’re starting a conversation, and you don’t always know who you’re starting it with. Boilerplate bromides designed to be inoffensive can attract a lot of abuse, so you can’t afford to insult people’s intelligence with slogans designed to sound good and not say very much. And while it’s OK to encourage people to do business with you—the internet does understand that you’re a business—you won’t make many friends if everything you have to say is transparently self-serving.

Once you jump in, plan to stay awhile. Social media is about engagement, and that means people expect some real interaction with you. It probably seems contrary to every business instinct you have to pay someone to sit and post on social media all day, but you might want to do just that because that person is talking to the public on your behalf, every bit as much as the cashier who’s talking to a customer face-to-face. Companies that post and walk away not only let the mob set the tone of the conversation, but they miss opportunities to answer questions (or even better sometimes, ask them), and to make people feel like they’ve got their attention in a real and direct way. To get that kind of engagement, you can’t just throw up a post and then go stock shelves.

Be willing to have a little fun. McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s joust with each other on social media. So do Coke and Pepsi. So do the Dodgers and the Giants. It’s not mean or nasty. It’s not about showing up the other guy. It’s just about showing there’s some spirit behind your presentation of your business and your brand. Th e person who can explain the technical ins and outs of social media but has the personality of dry toast is probably not who you want handling your content. Th e overly cautious Public Relations Society of America pro with the APR certification probably isn’t, either. A good-natured, relaxed, reasonably well-informed free spirit will do great—but not too free, which brings us to…

Keep a loose grip on what’s being said. How many companies, candidates, celebrities or sports teams have had to apologize for a post or a tweet because their 21-year-old social media manager pushed the envelope too far and assumed the freedom to do so? It’s not practical for someone at the leadership level to have to approve every single thing. It bogs the process down and generally makes it less creative and free-wheeling, which is death in social media. But the person at the keyboard needs to understand the basic limits under which he or she has to operate. Remember, you don’t want it to sound all dry and corporate because you’re risk-averse. That doesn’t get results on social media. But creativity has to happen within reasonable parameters, and you’d better know how to set those parameters.

So do I go on Twitter? Are you crazy? That place is a horror show. But if you’re trying to market anything on even a local scale, you’re giving away a golden opportunity if you don’t. I’ll be rooting for you, from afar.

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