Monday, May 7, 2012

What you say matters.

Reputation It's been just over a week since I returned from the AIM Conference, where the focus was Customer First. There was a huge amount of attention paid to online ratings/reviews, reputation management, and dialogue with customers via social, mobile, and other channels. The conference made me think a lot about both professional and personal reputation, and how they're shaped not only by what others say about us, but what we say do and say in return.

Coincidentally, over the past several days, I've read two very timely articles concerning reputation management, and the responsibility that comes with having an audience — both physical and virtual (i.e., a following on social media). Peter Shankman's post, "No, you cannot 'borrow my audience'," was written after a PR person asked to "borrow his audience" for purposes of pitching a new product. As part of the post, Mr. Shankman explains the value he ascribes to his audience, which he has built over years of work. There were a few key sentences that really jumped out at me:
Having an audience is a privilege, not a right. (...) We’re born as free people with certain unalienable rights, but guess what — having a bunch of people who will listen to you (...) is NOT one of them. You have to EARN that.
Additionally, an article recently appeared on Forbes.com, entitled "Yes, What You Say On Twitter Actually Does Matter." Erik Kalin writes (bold emphasis mine):
Here’s the thing, if you say something in a public forum like Twitter, you aren’t granted immunity from public scrutiny just because it’s Twitter. There is nothing magical about writing in 140 characters or less that shields you from your own words. If I say something stupid or controversial on Twitter or if I write something on a blog or if I shout it in the town square it makes no difference. I’m doing it in public and I can’t complain when people respond.
Communication isn’t just about speaking to one another in person. It’s not bound to real life interactions. Meaning doesn’t evaporate when pixels are involved. (...) (B)efore saying something controversial on Twitter, that might require clarification or that might reflect poorly on your organization, remember that although you are on the internet, your words still matter. You are responsible for them.

As I mulled over the conference and these articles, I was reminded of something very important: both businesses and individuals have "audiences" in some way, shape or form. Not everyone has an audience of thousands, but thanks to social media and the ubiquity of ratings and reviews, everyone is an influencer. Don't believe me? Do you have a Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media account? Are you a Yelp-er? Have you ever posted a review at any e-commerce site? Commented on a blog post? Complained or raved about some service/experience to friends or family? Responded to an online review? If so, congratulations: you have an audience. And, by virtue of social media, you also participate as a member of seemingly countless other audiences.

For better or worse, word of mouth has changed. There are online conversations going on all around us, everyday, that inform and change our opinions. This goes not just for businesses but for individuals, too: our personal and professional reputations depend on how others perceive us, and everything we do either helps to build up or break down that reputation.

The point? The pen (tweet, post, etc.— insert your communication tool of choice) is most definitely mightier than the sword, and here's the kicker: your actions can shape not only what others think about a certain subject, but also what your audience thinks about YOU, or your business. Social media has forced us to own what we say at a whole new level, and dissent should be considered par for the course in any healthy dialogue. But the next time your fingers are itching, or your mouth is twitching, stop and think: Is this important for me to share? Is it useful? Is it constructive? Am I responding appropriately to the situation at hand?

If you can't answer those questions in the affirmative, think twice before you hit "post." Maybe you need to re-frame your comment, or maybe you need to simply say nothing at all: just because you can say something doesn't mean that you should. Mr. Shankman is so right: it is a privilege that others value what we have to say. Speak thoughtfully, be professional, and take responsibility. Your "audience" (customers, contacts, friends, extended network—whomever your words touch) depends on you. Don't endanger that relationship.

And sure, you can delete posts—but like an elephant, the internet never forgets. Someone, somewhere saw what you wrote before you had a change of heart. Mr. Shankman notes, "Audiences today are mobile. They can go anywhere, anytime." Are you/your business communicating with your audience in a way that makes them want to hear more? Do your words and actions support how you want to be perceived?

Social reach has infinitely more power behind it than any megaphone, which means it's more important than ever to think before we speak. Words can be taken out of context, meanings can be misconstrued, but at the end of the day, what we say still matters—pixels or no pixels. As Mr. Kalin so succinctly states, "Social media is a tool, for good or ill. How you use that tool is up to you."

Our reputations depend upon it.