THE BLOG

To Avoid Special Surprises on Social Media, Curate, Don't Control

20/02/2014 14:52 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

Cursory lessons all round this week on Social Media - as two quite different organisations trying to assert too much control of their message end up losing control of it entirely.

PR agency House PR became the story yesterday for trying to force journalists to tweet puff about their client, the Brits main sponsor, in return for accreditation to the event. I know I wasn't the only PR person responding with both incredulity at the clumsiness of the idea, but also horror at the thought of what the junior staffers there must have been going through as it blew up all over the web.

Away from the bright lights and roaring hangovers of the Brits, West Midlands Police found themselves in a mess of their own making too. Inspector Michael Brown had a large Twitter following and earned plaudits for tweeting and blogging about mental health and the police. Last weekend followers were surprised to see his Twitter account suspended and his blog set to private. It's unclear why it was suspended, but the person who oversees West Midlands Police's social media output said: "I also can't imagine any organisation that would want its employees to be openly critical of it - or indeed allow it."

He has a point, but in focussing on a few critical tweets he's missed the much bigger reputational picture: instead of being the force that facilitated a committed and popular officer from being open about the police and mental health, West Midlands Police are not the force that tried to silence him. It's certainly arguable that the shutting down was worse PR than the the original content itself.

Like many organisations, West Midlands Police find themselves responsible for content they did not produce, don't really agree with and certainly haven't planned for. Their somewhat old fashioned response is to control it from the centre and try and stamp it out. It doesn't work - as they found out to their costs and easily shareable content can spiral out of your control - as it it did for House PR yesterday too.

The alternatives for both of these cases may have been simple - West Midlands Police could embrace committed officers talking frankly about their work, Mastercard's PR folks could have given has a rather more engaging, creative reason to promote their client than "do it or you can't come in". Ultimately - the organisations who use social the best think about how to curate content produced by themselves, their staff, their users or customers.

Rethink's Find Mike campaign last month was one of the best examples of integrated content curation you'll see - a Rethink supporter tells an incredibly moving story, there's something for people to share, it plays well on TV and in the press. As a consumer, you don't feel you're being sold to - our controlled or pushed to think about something. Light touch branding in this way is bold and innovative and tells a great story itself.

As the lines between on and offline comms blur into nothing, it's more important than ever that organisations think hard about the impacts of all their communications and how they play both on and offline - or they'll end on the receiving end of a special surprise of their own.