The Untruth That is Social Media: Authenticity is Still Critically Important

Very rarely is it a perfect tool on its own. A new New York Times article shows how LIKES and reviews were bought, rather than earned. What we can learn from this to perfect our company's communications.

By Sarah Sherwood, publicist

February 8, 2018

Since I started in communications almost thirty years ago, through world wide agencies and on my own, I’ve seen changes that work, and really serve clients, and then there are some that trend for a while but ultimately don’t work for clients. It is critical for any company’s communication strategy to understand which is best, because public communication can be expensive and time consuming. 

Since social media has taken center stage, communications professionals have touted a tool that is much easier than taking the time to work with traditional media. But facts are emerging that show many CEOs frustrated that social media is not producing the numbers or the success they have been promised. Most companies that are opinion-dependent need an integrated strategy. Allow me to explain why.

The Big Numbers are Big Nonsense

One of the reasons, which the 2016 election highlighted, is that too much of the information is fake. Recent reporting by the New York Times highlights what many publicists have known for years:  People are buying popularity in the way of large numbers of LIKES and reviews. It’s distasteful but it is also highly ineffective. 

You Must Build Credibility 

Good products and services that third parties talk about are what counts. And lying about numbers can ruin a reputation once you’re caught. I recently took a my very niche client’s Facebook page from a couple of hundred LIKES to a couple of thousand, doing the work of attracting genuine LIKES and very positive, real reviews. 2000+ LIKES is not a huge number, but that doesn't matter as much as many are told, and what is worse is to pay for (or lie about) popularity. These pages simply serve as a reminder to those already interested, as well as a place to highlight all the news our organization is getting—again, that proven popularity. I didn’t put all my eggs in the social media basket, because it does absolutely no good to pitch opinion-dependent products and services with social media with one exception: reviews.  Real reviews have the substance and authority your publics are searching for—they aren’t taking any of the major platform’s word for it. If a lot of people genuinely LIKE something, they want to know why, and now, they want to know if it’s real. There is a formula we use that shows your audience genuine value.

An Integrated Strategy with Traditional Media Yields Results

It is a waste of time and money to concentrate solely on one form of communications —you need an integrated strategy. Part of that integrated program must include a communications professional who has good relationships with reporters and bloggers you care about, and that often comes with big agency experience, and continued education. We know, through research from Stanford University and other academic data that much of what is on social media doesn’t convince the oversold public. It merely serves as another form of advertising and marketing, controlled media that does a great job reminding people they’re out there but doesn’t convince consumers. Studies find instead that third parties, mostly in the form of reviews and news articles, earned media, are much better at giving people a reason to buy. And we need all of it to be effective: reasons, reminders, and a place to go. But do social media professionals know how to work with the news media? Most do not. Teams of communications professionals learn from each other and can make up a powerful alliance for your company.

I'll give you a secret from the inside of the communications industry: there are public relations professionals who don’t want to build a relationship with journalists . It is hard work and takes specific skills, a “nose for news,” and a proclivity for the truth. It challenges the most seasoned professionals. But some of us are passionate about that because we see how powerful traditional media and third party development are at building trust. Instead, some public relations agencies have gone full throttle toward social media as their main strategy because it is easy money and easy work. They can say here are the numbers, “proving” that much wanted ROI. But the recent New York Times article I’ve referenced above shows why they aren’t always true numbers.  

Instead, see reviews and articles on social media as one tool in a necessary trove of communications functions. If you aren’t going after other forms of communications, you aren’t getting your money’s worth.

Real Numbers That Count: Create A Public of Believers

The underlying problem is that our attention span has become shockingly brief, as studies show that the average time spent on Web sites is a mere eight seconds. Think about that: the average time your potential consumers spend on your site is averaging eight seconds (some say ten). That alone tells you that old fashioned relationship building is needed in order for your communications to be effective. Public relations, done correctly, is the relationship business. Think of social media as pretty quick speed dating in that scenario.

Observers are beginning to argue that social media is anti-social.  You cannot build key relationships, the way you need to, quickly. There is one exception: if your publics already know they want your product. Then social media is the way to go, because really, at the end of the day, it has some of the strengths of advertising, when done right.

Inside the industry we’ve known for years that people have been buying LIKES and reviews. Sometimes it takes a New York Times article to get people to talk about it. It takes a few smart journalists to do the research and vet it and get the point across, along with social media to help push it out so that the information put out has credibility and is believable. That’s what we’ve learned. And it has been a fascinating journey.