by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango, LLC + Social Media Realist

Harvard Business ReviewLots 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:

Source: Allison Fine, “What Does ‘Professional’ Look Like Today,” HBR, 5/9/2012

Cute. My response?

  • Pepsi abandoned the Super Bowl to fully embrace social media with its “Refresh” campaign, attempting to bond with its Millennial customers over social and environmental issues. This generated a lot of buzz, but it didn’t generate sales, and Pepsi wound up losing market share to Coca-Cola, and its flagship soda sank to #3 in its market for the first time (behind both Coke and Diet Coke). Pepsi has since abandoned Refresh and gone back to advertising during 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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