Lots of people sharing a Harvard Business Review blog about what it means to be professional in the social media era. It begins with a compelling example of how the Susan G. Komen Foundation bungled its recent image problems, while Planned Parenthood used social media to handle their controversies with aplomb. Nice case.
Then the article spins out of control…
It uses that one case and the usual tired cliches, stats and “experts” to argue that everyone should be “transparent” and embrace social media. It includes this table of old professionals vs. new professionals:
Cute. My response?
- In 2009, John Mackey of Whole Foods wrote an editorial in the Wall Street Journal stating his opposition to Obama’s healthcare plan. Whole Foods customers (who tend to be limousine liberals) responded in anger with an organized (but short-lived) boycott using social media. That was Mackey’s reward for revealing his personal interests and passions. Given who most of his customers are, perhaps he should have reconsidered being so “transparent.”
- Apple, which has enjoyed enormous success, is one of the most secretive and least transparent companies in the United States, despite operating in the hotbed of social media startups, Silicon Valley. Apple does not use social media to any great extent. Meanwhile, one of Apple’s retail partners, Best Buy, wholeheartedly embraced social media, and the CMO, Barry Judge, was seen as a pioneer and visionary, blogging regularly about social media. Today, both Barry Judge and his blog are gone.
- Pepsi abandoned the Super Bowl to fully embrace social media with its “Refresh” campaign, attempting to bond with Millennials over social and environmental issues. This generated buzz but not generate sales, and Pepsi wound up losing market share to Coca-Cola, with its flagship soda sinking to #3 in its market for the first time (behind both Coke and Diet Coke). Pepsi has since abandoned Refresh and gone back to the Super Bowl.
- Finally, this current political season shows the hazards of expressing one’s true interests and passions in any kind of media, since partisan extremists will insist that candidates toe a hard line, no matter how honest and competent they are. (See “Huntsman, Jon.”)
My point: there are just as many failures when it comes to being “transparent” and “social” as there are success stories. We can’t just use a few examples to prove anything; as advertising executive Bob Hoffman notes, “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Regardless of the hype du jour, we must conduct critical analyses of what works best for our brands in our markets.
So what is a professional?
A few years ago, I wrote my own take on the word “professional.” My key points involved respect, dedication, and being appropriate. On this last point I wrote:
“A true professional understands the environment, audience and occasion, then comports herself appropriately. Yes, this sometimes means wearing a suit, but at other times, it might mean wearing jeans and an ironic logo T-shirt. (Though at no time does it ever mean wearing Crocs.) She speaks at the level of her audience, never over their heads, but without pandering to their slang or mannerisms. Joking around is totally fine — even encouraged — as long as her tone is appropriate for the audience. (Some groups don’t mind a strategic f-bomb.)”
Note that it’s not about being “transparent” or “authentic.” Indeed, I have found the whole “authenticity” movement to be flawed, hypocritical, even reckless. Call me cynical, but instead of being “authentic” we need to be realistic about what works in a fiercely competitive marketplace. This notion of “just be yourself” is cute and idealistic, and perhaps it’s the way to go if you’re seeking a spouse; but when it comes to business, “be yourself” is the biggest lie that adults tell young people, since the adult world requires a lot of posturing, positioning and posing to get the job and to keep it. (Do people put on acts and cover up their flaws to get a job, a client, a promotion, a raise, or a foundation grant? People do.)
In today’s marketplace, you need to emphasize your expertise, not your peccadilloes. Why do you think people write for the Harvard Business Review in the first place?
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