In a Risky Communications Environment, Speed Requires Two Things: Preparation & Trust

The internet is a risky place to communicate: no matter what issue you’re talking about, online media bring out the ugly. Not just in politics, too, since anyone “lucky” enough to land in the news gets skewered for how he or she looks, walks, talks, thinks, emotes, or flips a lock of hair. Want to think less of humanity? Just read the comments left on stories on any major news site…yuck. Worse, cable news amplifies the problem, since the channels have an endless hunger for “oh, what an idiot stories,” which they gleefully recycle until they’re squeezed of every shred of schadenfreude.

Not exactly an environment that encourages risk-taking! Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us, then, that a recent Business Insider article explained that a tweet from a corporate brand might take 45 days to arrive in public after it was first thought up:

But what most people don’t know is how much time and effort goes into curating these accounts, writing tweets, and filling your news feed with content people want to see. For instance, it can take a team of 13 social-media and advertising specialists up to 45 days to plan, create, approve, and publish a corporate social-media post.

The problem is, of course, that a 45-day publishing schedule doesn’t exactly leave time to react in the moment. Imagine trying to catch a breaking news cycle while riding a glacier! Plus, too many layers of editing tend to suck the energy out of ideas that started fresh and vibrant, as each reviewer tries to justify his or her existence with “just a few changes.” The result? Writing by committee…which leads to mush. And if the top leaders have to approve everything that goes out, god help you — I’ve seen so many good ideas die in the executive suite just because they didn’t “sound right” to someone who was decades away from the target audience.

What’s the answer? Trust and preparation. Advocacy organizations, political campaigns and corporate brands have to arm their staff with the right information, trust them to make good decisions, and then let them do it. For a start, staff need to understand the parameters. What tone is appropriate? What topics/words/phrases are forbidden ground? What kinds of content does this organization’s particular audience respond to? What themes is the organization trying to promote, and why? What’s the larger communications strategy this tweet is supporting? What already-prepared words and images can they draw on? If people are understand these considerations, and they have a shred of common sense, they’ll usually stay on-message and on-target, particularly if you’ve armed them with a rich store of relevant content that they can adapt in a hurry.

Of course, since any staffer can make a mistake (and a truly disastrous tweet can ruin a company…or a political campaign), so running content past another set of eyes is usually smart. But if that review takes days or weeks (or sometimes, more than a few minutes), the results can miss the moment when they might have mattered. Pre-scriped pap rarely breaks through the clutter, online or off — if Oreo had waited days to post their legendary Super Bowl tweet, who’d have noticed? A tweet that was preceded by 18 months of planning and preparation, I’ll point out.

What about encouraging your supporters to act on your behalf online or in person? Also risky — someone might go off-message at any moment, risking embarrassment or turning off a potential recruit. But if you don’t tap the power of volunteers to act in their communities and social circles, you miss a powerful way to find support and influence opinion. Again, training and trust are key! People need to have the tools (like pre-packaged imagery or phrasing) and understand the message, but you also have to trust them to deliver it right.

If you truly can’t handle risk as a person or an organization, you’re not likely to get far online. Honestly, if you can’t handle risk at all, you’re not likely to get very far in ANY modern communications environment! Key to maintaining both sanity and your employment is understanding the risk and preparing for it: prep your people right, and you’ll rarely need be ready to clean up a big sloppy mess. The trolls will always be with us, but good planning can help you communicate without feeding them a healthy meal of screw-up. Trust me.

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