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Should internal brand advocates truly be themselves online?

Recently there’s been a heated exchange between RichardatDell and Amanda Chapel on Twitter regarding the lines between personal and professional when representing a company in the social media space. Without getting into the, ahem, personality conflicts between them and taking sides, I do think it’s an interesting and relevant subject to explore.

Where is the line between a “community evangelist’s” personal opinions and the company they represent? Does it matter in our new digitally connected world? I’d like to say no, but I tend to land on the Amanda Chapel side of the fence that it does.

Every interaction a corporate employee has reflects on the company while they’re “on the clock”. That’s standard thinking and it goes from the person in the call centre to the CEO. Why has social media changed that reality? Do brand advocates or community managers need to be “the brand” 24/7? Can they really do justice to what the company stakeholders want (profits & positive awareness) by being “real” and airing their own personal thoughts and opinions (and prejudices and biases) whenever the mood strikes?

When I’m interacting with someone who is clearly online in their capacity with the company (i.e. X@DELL), everything I read and every interaction I have with them reflects back on the company brand. Not to say that I don’t want to interact with a real person and that I begrudge them having a personality and a life, but when they are acting as agents of their brand, whatever they do reflects back on the brand/ company itself. That’s part of how human beings see things and it is something that we, as business people, need to recognize as we navigate this brave new frontier of constant connectedness.

We’re all human and we all have bad days of course, but they are paid employees, not organic consumer advocates and they, by necessity, have an agenda to promote a positive image of the brand, otherwise they would just be a regular Jane and post as themselves without the brand standing behind them. In reality, I could really despise company X’s evangelist because of their personal politics, or ego, or what have you, and that would reflect back on the company itself for no good reason other than they’re out there on the intertubes.

(And to clarify again, this isn’t meant to pass judgement on RichardatDell, but his interactions with Amanda Chapel, a fictional character, have spurred my thinking)

My thoughts on how to mitigate this are still evolving, but I think it does no one a service to ignore human nature and the pitfalls of being a high profile company representative who is “always on” and mixes the truly personal with their professional capacity.

What do you think?

[photo credit: dadawan via Flickr]

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Comments (27) to “Should internal brand advocates truly be themselves online?”

  1. Another similar issue that’s being debated is personal branding vs company branding. i.e: when a company employee becomes an influential figure in the social media sphere, is it the person’s influence or the brand influence that’s at work. May be a mix of both when company and person are under the same ‘brand’. What if the person leaves? where does the influence go?
    Social media is a lot about company loosing (sharing?) control of their brand and, if they’ve digitally connected employee, potentially loosing control of their influence when their influencial ones decide to leave. I think minimizing the impact of sauch an event is a key issue company will need to address.

  2. I agree entirely that when X@company name is on twitter, everything they say is a reflection of their professional brand. At the same time, they need to be human and express their personality in order to engage others and instill confidence.

    We’re also in an interesting time where X@company on twitter responds to customers quickly. I wonder if they are setting expectations too high and how companies will deal with 24/7 service expectations on social networks as the novelty starts wearing off.

    Laurent raises a very good point. I wonder what type of succession planning companies are doing in case their digital community evangelist leaves.

  3. I never thought about this when I saw RichardatDell and AmandaChapel’s back and forth yesterday but as you’ve pointed out Tamera, we will associate a person’s views and personality with the brand.
    However, I do think that the personal is what makes social media so valuable. Yes, it’s great to have responses from companies’ evangelists but if they are too much about the brand then it’s not social – as you point out.
    This is such a great post and I’m not even sure what the smartest approach is but my gut tells me that the personal needs to mix in with the work – that’s the way things are moving.

  4. I would tend to agree with you.

    I also often find myself wondering what’s going to happen to x@Dell and ZapposGirlX if/when they move to another job. There is a fair amount of permanency attached to a username – even if the person changes it after they move to another company, will that positive brand equity stick to Dell or Zappos, or does it follow the individual to their new job?

    Interesting conundrum.

  5. Hi Tamera,

    Good post for sure and a line that is constantly open to question. Wanted to add couple thoughts for you in the deliberation:
    1. There are millions of dell customers and/or potential customers. We believe that social media helps us foster direct relationships, not just transactions with our customers. Think about your own customer relationships and to what extent they rely on the personal and professional interactions that you have. And by the way, personal relationships can end up resulting in sales.
    2. For any company there are many stakeholders (internal, customers and potential customers, shareholders and external interests like communities, governments etc). Relationships with each and all of those company stakeholders involves various and different transactions. In the case of social media, they are also transparent. While some may wonder what a dialogue between two people has to do with business, if the relationships with all stakeholders are to be “relationships” then they are not merely dependent on product/service transactional dialogue online.

    I enjoyed reading your perspective and the appreciate the views of your readers.

    As an aside, RichardatDell will continue to be the person and the professional because I believe thats what social media is all about.

  6. This is such a tough issue. My gut feeling is that you need to present your personal view. However, as a rep for the company there are probably subjects and conversations you should avoid (i.e. religion and politics). Of course if your company is making a stand on one of these issues then it may be a different story …

    As for when the person leaves the company I think that this is something we will have to see play out. Although it may well end up with benefits for the personal brand and the company brand (i.e. as blogging did for Scoble and Microsoft).

  7. Have you considered that to try to make a person conform to some brand straitjacket makes both the person and the brand look stiff and fake?

    If a person, who’s working for a company, comes across as reasonable and interested and listening, then politics etc don’t matter (except to bigots; are they good customers, generally?). The person tells you what sort of people work for the company – if the company moulds the people, that’s somewhat scary.

    As an aside, there is no “Amanda Chapel”: it’s a man (or four) who used to work in PR; an “angry brand” who seem(s) terrified of the way that social media is remoulding that profession. Think of “Amanda Chapel” as representing everything about old PR, including its backwardness. Personally, I don’t like it.

  8. I like the conforming to a straitjacketed brand concept, Charles!

  9. I’d much rather have Richard representing me than the buffoons at Strumpette.

  10. thanks Geoff :-)

  11. Very interesting post and one that I personally have wrestled with. Richartdell, johnatdell and I have debated this topic and I have concluded that our personas online are the total person, not just the views of the company we work for. I think if you look at the tweets of people like richardatdell, you’ll see him talking about his love of photography, his political leanings and his friends and family, as well as Dell-related issues and the business of social media. Completely transparent – like his views or not, richardatdell isn’t much different than richard – believe me, I work with him. Not entirely true of others that have been discussed here. This is a great topic and one that will continue to evolve.

  12. —–Original Message—–
    From: Amanda Chapel [mailto:chapel@strumpette.com]
    Sent: Friday, August 29, 2008 2:39 PM
    To: ‘Andy_Lark@Dell.com’
    Cc: ‘michael_dell@dell.com’; ‘mark_jarvis@dell.com’; ‘lawrence_tu@dell.com’
    Subject: On Making a Mess of Professional Customer Relationships
    Importance: High

    Mr. Andrew Lark
    VP of Global Marketing and Communications
    Dell, Inc.

    Dear Andy:

    Amanda Chapel here. Sorry, I’m writing to bring a problem to your attention. As it seems to be escalating rapidly, I’m hoping you might nip it in the bud.

    First, as we’ve discussed in the past I’m a huge Dell fan. I’m a customer. I’m a stockholder. As you are aware, I was one of the few voices who stood up for Dell when the company was being attacked publicly by Jeff Jarvis. To that add, I’m also a huge fan of your work there.

    That said, a few of your front-line folks that you’ve assigned to the “conversation” on Dell’s behalf, particularly your Twitter social-media team, are making a complete mess of it. The problem is that your people are grossly confusing personal and professional relationships. In the words of Dell’s Richard Binhammer, “if the relationships with all stakeholders are to be relationships and they are not merely dependent on product service transactional dialogue.” From a business perspective, that’s wrong and also dangerous.

    Specifically, it’s problematic for a number of reasons:

    1) It’s very confusing to the customer. It is also confusing at law. Note: As an agent of the company, the confusion that Richard promotes actually exposes Dell to potential liability when he’s off work. The point is, of course, the case can be made that he is never off work and always acting as a Dell agent.
    2) It’s unprofessional and belittles the brand. Examples: http://twitter.com/RichardatDELL and http://twitter.com/LionelatDELL . That’s not casual; that’s just sloppy. It’s also totally inconsistent with Dell’s message of superior quality.
    3) From a “politics of the marketplace” perspective, bonding with capriciously selected individuals as they are doing, absolutely alienates the majority. That’s Professional Communications 101. Building relationships that are patently obsequious by their nature is exclusive. The other side of the coin of the “favoritism” your people are fostering is subtle bigotry. These are like High School cliques. If you’re not “in,” you’re excluded. I’ve experienced that first hand by your people. It’s wrong. It’s unprofessional.

    Excuse me but your agents as loose canons aside, this confusion is going to result in long-term ill will; trust me. In light of “Turnaround interuptus” http://tinyurl.com/6d343h , that’s bad for business. Building faux market share at the expense of the bottom line is a mistake. The marketplace has spoken.

    I appreciate your attention to this matter.

    Sincerely,

    – Amanda

    CC: Michael Dell, Mark Jarvis, Lawrence Tu

  13. I believe that both Richard and Amanda raise good points in this discussion. But if ‘Amanda Champel’ is going to send an email to the CEO and senior executives of Dell to complain about a badged employee, then have the guts to use your real name and not some fake alias. Otherwise that is just a cheap shot and cowardly to boot and any legitimate criticisms you may raise are indeed worthless.

  14. I think a discussion of how personal and professional personas work into a brand is indeed an interesting one. Certainly in the image-building control mold, personality has always been excluded. The new model has sometimes gone completely the other way. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle of the two, as it often is.

    Certainly mistakes will be made, but overall, Dell’s social media team has gone out of their way to address consumer concerns. There is no exclusivity in how they respond.

    A personal interchange between a major detractor and RichardatDell is being construed as an example of how Dell operates overall. This is ludicrous. Someone here is looking for attention and it is not RichardatDell.

    The issue is a good one to discuss and debate, but not sure if an exchange with AmandaChapel is the best case study. That particular brand is aimed at pushing buttons and tripping people up.

  15. @Kami – it wasn’t meant to be a case study as I tried to make clear, but it was what spurred my thoughts on the larger issues. I believe in being honest about where my inspiration comes from, so I included the links to both their twitter streams and referenced their interactions.

    I think the comment by Charles about the AC character has turned this into something it didn’t set out to be. Neither Richard nor Bruce made this about Amanda Chapel and I appreciate that.

  16. I don’t know if there’s a hard and fast rule here. When hiring someone to act as the public face of the company (whether online or not), you have to be very aware of personality and likeability.

    You then frame their rules of engagement. Television spokespersons don’t normally spend a lot of time speaking publicly about their personal interests. It isn’t expected from television types.

    In the social media world, we’re seeing a mix of identities develop: faceless consumer support, hiding behind a generic nicks; outspoken identities who effectively mix personality and corporate priority; and cautious and measured executives.

    I’ll tell you one thing: when it comes time to fight a crisis, you’d rather have the outspoken identity speak for you online. That’s the only type that can actually engage with an often vicious social media cabal, not to mention the average consumer.

    It may all boil down to effective hiring and management practices.

    And if every company behaved as cautiously as AC would prefer, there would be far fewer professional conferences and Lions Clubs would be empty.

  17. I think what’s being missed here is that the proliferation of communication channels has created a world in which it’s become impossible for individuals to perfectly separate themselves from their corporate affiliations.

    It’s pretty straightforward for anyone to find out where I work, which means that anything I say online might be interpreted by others as a statement made in my professional capacity.

    The interesting debate for me isn’t really about should people present themselves as corporate representatives — the reality is that, given that people WILL be interpreted as corporate representatives, what are the smart decisions to be made?

    As a hiring manager, what this means to me is that I need to hire only people in whom I have confidence. Confidence not only in their skills and ability to do the job they’re hired for, but in their character and their ability to present themselves appropriately in ALL situations.

    My developers have blogs. Our support people post on forums. Any or all of their communications might be seen by others as representative of our company’s character or policies, regardless of the employee’s intentions. It’s not going to do me much good to say, “Well, Fred wasn’t in the office when he made that post about how puppies should be tortured to death, so that has nothing to do with us.” Just the fact that we hire puppy-torturing fiends is going to tell people something about our company.

    It is REALITY that people are communicating in ways that defeat any company’s ability to effectively dictate through command-control policies. Far better is to hire people you trust absolutely, and let them do smart things. Transparency is turning out to be a lot easier than “spin control”.

  18. Let’s get this straight. ‘Amanda Chapel’ is not a real person, it’s a character for a discredited on-line troll.
    There’s little to be gained by engaging with a troll or debating — the trolling is the point.

  19. @NotAmandaChapel

    Thanks for dropping by. It’s been made quite clear this post is not about Amanda Chapel. Did you have any thoughts on the issues and ideas that myself and others have brought up here or were you merely interested in trolling yourself in this thread?

  20. @tamera, thanks for allowing what is an anonymous post.

    My point is that the only winner in a discussion about issues raised by a troll is the troll itself.
    I’m sure whoever is putting on the tatty Amanda Chapel costume these days would delighted to think they’d sparked a serious discussion among real people.
    That is after all, part of the point — to hide behind a pseudonym, spout contentious views and hope someone bites. They’re not interested in the point itself, just the debate (and the bigger the better). Getting real people to express their personal views in response is the fuel that keeps a troll going.
    There is no real issue of personal vs professional blurring here worth discussing — and Amanda Chapel is just having fun making people chase their tails.
    But then of course people should give no more credence to my opinion on-line than any other troll.

  21. I haven’t been following the discussion on Twitter, and I don’t care to. I do think, however, that a blogger or Twitterer using what’s clearly a company identification does have a responsibility to represent his or her employer well. That doesn’t mean the person must be devoid of personality or not express his views on issues.

    The employer should define whatever limits they feel they want to impose — possibly no support or putting down of a political candidate, for example, or no viewpoint on abortion or gun control or the war. That’s up to the company, in my opinion.

    The employee should still be free to express his or her unfettered views on his own personal blog or twitter.

    But if I were a marketing or communications head at a large company where people are participating in social media, I’d be sure to lay out some guidelines. Depending on that particular company’s corporate culture, the guidelines might be very loose or very tight. The company has a right and an obligation to protect its brand and reputation.

  22. As I read the amandas’ letter to the execs at Dell, it seems the real problem they are having is that they are not being invited to the party – this makes it clearly about them and their personal dismay at not being treated well. Clearly they are not being treated well because they are trolls and could not even prove that they are indeed shareholders to be listened to. This is all about a personal attack where Amanda is literally trying to get Richard fired. Where are the real points that make this about whether Richard represented the brand appropriately? What actions are being called into question? I don’t want to read through all the trash the cowards are spewing to find out, so I would appreciate it if someone could point out what exactly Richard supposedly did wrong.

    That said, there is actually an issue to discuss here.

    Are we allowed to be humans, or we really supposed to be cogs in a machine? Are we allowed free will or are we supposed to be subservient to our corporate overlords? The same people who want us to be working from home in the off hours, who gave us a blackberry so we will never be out of touch can not now say, so we have overtaken your life and your time, so you must always behave as I dictate. Of course, they could, and we would just have the choice as to whether or not to take it.

    Do I want airforce pilots to be this way? neurosurgeons? constitutional lawyers? I don’t think so, but I do respect their humanity. What is the degree to which the level of responsibility comes to play here? The answer, it is all situational.

    A PR person engaged in social media on behalf of a brand is their own voice first despite clearly being a rep of the brand. They must each balance out the issues and come to their own conclusions of what is appropriate and what is not. If they cross an unseen line and their employers deem it so offensive that they choose to fire them, so be it. We are all responsible for ourselves it would seem, unless of course you meet an anonymous troll who has an axe to grind, who doesnt want to give up control of the blessed PR message and has emotional baggage preventing them from proper social interactions…

    I side with our humanity, and all the messiness that we have to deal with as a result… even in dealing with Amanda and whatever terrible personal thing happened to them in order to think this way. I have true compassion for them as I have published previously – that is why I just leave them alone and dont talk to them anymore, though I do get a great laugh everytime they remind me of some great national spumoni day in an effort to personally attack my health/weight and demean me and my public reputation.

    PS – Core Reid +++

    PPS – OMG, lets be clear, this is someone who not only didnt see Dell’s customer service as a problem, but publicly defended them? So let me get this straight, people aren’t allowed to be human, and when companies are screwing up, its ok, so long as they get to keep their control and no individual voice should rise up to complain – now I see the problem, Amanda thinks the world of business is perfect as it is and is resistant to changes (for the better at least)

  23. just curious if you deleted my comment, and if so, why? its your blog, you can do whatever you want, but I am just surprised. If you have it still, would you please forward to me so I can post onto my own site as I dont have a copy of it and spent a lot of time writing it and editing it….

  24. Chris, I did not delete your comment as you can see. It went to moderation as all comments do when the individual has not posted before. I do not moderate on content. Since today is a holiday and I am out and about I just approved from my blackberry. Thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt.

    Tamera

  25. Sorry Tamera, I saw it posted, sent someone there and they told me it wasnt – missed the comment moderation notice on the first one but saw it on the 2nd – my main concern was to collect the thoughts i was trying to get out not your moderation – just hate losing things I write – this is one of those complicated subjects, would like a day or two to really respond more deeply but there just isnt the time to drop everything and jump into the fray fully at the moment

    Chris

  26. I’m with you Tamera. If you are identified with a brand, you represent that brand in whatever interaction you have with your circle of friends or your social media following.

    Twitter throws things out of whack. On blogs, you can easily have a disclaimer/disclosure statement and even link to your organization’s online policies. On my blog I have a clear statement of where I work and that the blog is my own opinion and not those of my employer. However, I’m still held to the firm’s online policies for anything I do online.

    Though it isn’t necessarily a part of my online persona that I broadcast, I am mindful that I’m representing my firm and my actions may have an impact on attracting clients and employees in either positive or negative ways.

  27. most people in marketing, advertising, and pr are so disconnected from truth that the general public discounts most of what they say. so, moot point.

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