Help Your Brand by “Uncovering the Human Factor in Social Media Marketing”

The top minds in PR today are pushing some progressive ideas. Like press releases are a thing of the past. Like, to do PR in this new media world, a brand needs to be telling stories. Like, your brand storytellers shouldn’t be just the CEO or the PR guy. And like, if you don’t apologize for your company’s mistakes and mean it, the social media backlash could kill you.

They share these insights in a collaborative and free-flowing exchange of expertise open for everyone to see in Google+ Hangouts on Air. This week, well-known author and semantic search expert David Amerland hosted the debut episode of a monthly Hangout event, “Power Talk.” Joining him were two in-the-trenches marketers, PR expert Steve Martin from Copperfox Marketing, and the cofounder and CMO of, Alex Coté.

Their conversation and Q&A provided a strong example of what the top PR pros are trying to do when representing brands online: give business a human face. PR is not about sending corporate news items down the wire. New media PR must convince the public that there is a person, no, persons powering that brand. Marketers have come to refer to this as storytelling centered around authenticity. From this focal point, the Hangout participants’ points fell into three categories:

  1. How PR is behind and needs to evolve
  2. How brands can be authentic and engage with more people
  3. Tips for creating a successful startup business with the human element

Power Talk Hangout

PR Is Evolving, And Now It Includes Everyone

The public relations industry has been hesitant to embrace social media for PR purposes, Steve said. Some reasons why PR folks resist:

  • Two-way conversation: Traditional PR involves one-way communication (putting out press releases, agency messaging, etc.). But with social media marketing, the conversation goes in both directions.
  • Message chaos: As David pointed out, PR is associated with a carefully managed image or “spin.” But that’s the opposite of social media, where being authentic is valued and there’s little control.
  • Many voices: In reality, social media makes everyone a PR person.

PR needs to evolve. Steve predicts that the PR industry will make a huge transition into digital over the next five years. He explains that today, you can build relationships with PR people through social media; however, when you need to put something out, you still have to contact them through the traditional routes of phone or email.

“PR is just another word for communications.” – Steve Martin

Today, a brand needs to nurture the one-on-one relationships. David observed that your social and personal contacts matter more than good PR. This is a throw-back to the ancient world, in which asking people for their help was the only way to get things done. Now, post-Industrial Age, “on your own you’re nothing”; what gives you power is your connections.

Press releases are a one-way communication tool that Alex said he hasn’t used in years. “Nobody reads press releases anymore,” he said. Instead, public relations is all about storytelling. To craft your story, Alex suggested asking:

  • What story are you telling?
  • Is it about the individual, about the brand?
  • How are you solving a problem?
  • Do you have a customer who has a problem that you’re solving?
  • Who within the organization should be telling this story? (It shouldn’t be all about the CEO or all from the agency or PR guy.)

If you can put yourself into that story in a human way, you’ll have a far bigger impact.

How Can a Brand Be Authentic (and Successfully Engage People) through Social Media?

“It’s the age of authenticity.” – Steve Martin

If a company wants to “spin” a particular brand image, it’s going to be a big challenge to do social media marketing. David Amerland pointed out that authenticity is one of the hottest topics now in Google+ and asked how a marketer can reconcile the need to be an authentic personality with the need to manage a public image.

create a human bridge
Create a “human bridge” from your brand

A commenter said that companies “can’t work through a logo” anymore, but have to have a personality attached. David agreed, saying that you almost need to create “a human bridge” to project the company values to the outside world. This is why social media is so important for businesses today. But how can you project a human, authentic personality for your brand?

  • Show a true image: Your brand image can’t be “spin” anymore. Ask, what are my brand’s core values and beliefs? Reflect those in your brand image.
  • Value authenticity: Steve said that if a brand isn’t authentic today, it will suffer a backlash in public relations — because people will eventually tell.
  • Match your personality: Realize that every person is his or her own brand. If you match whatever you are doing in social media to your own personality, you can’t help but be authentic.
  • Hire people who match your brand values/personality: Steve pointed out that this is the easiest way to keep a consistent brand personality and tone. When he writes on behalf of his company, he is personally a good match and therefore, a good brand advocate.
  • Don’t keep your experts “behind the curtain”: Alex said to enable more of your organization to be out there, representing the brand on social media. (Note: Alex wrote a post about how companies can help employees do this.) Steve mentioned that the shoe company Zappos has successfully made every employee a brand advocate.
  • Have integrity: Don’t be two-faced. Be transparent inside the company so all the team members know what’s going on with the business. Then project the same values outward.
  • Engage with people “out there”: Alex pointed out that you can’t just say, “Hey, write about my company.” You have to build relationships over time. If you connect with people and help them, when it’s time for you to need something, they’ll respond.
  • Listen very well: Building relationships involves giving and helping more than you take, versus going for clout and seeing who can blast the most. Never stop listening.
  • Apologize and follow through: The PR industry and even CEOs seem to not be able to say, “I’m sorry” and admit when they’re wrong. The speakers agreed this is “horrible” and must change in today’s authenticity-based marketing world. Alex said that he gives credit to consumers to be able to see through an insincere apology. Steve said to prove you mean an apology, you have to do more than just say you’re sorry. You must follow through and try to solve the problem, and change things to make sure it never happens again.

The speakers discussed a real-world example of a botched apology that hurt a company reputation — the BP oil spill. It took CEO Tony Hayward a long time to apologize, and even then he did not seem sincere. Steve said there had to be a mistake there somewhere. Either the CEO wasn’t a good embodiment of the company’s core values, or those values were wrong.

“If your brand is going to be human, like we all want it to be, then saying sorry is just another process of being human.” – Alex Coté

Bonus: Tips for Startup Businesses — How to Put the Human Elements in Place

Authentic human connections are also needed when doing a business startup, as the story of shows. Alex cofounded the business with Dan Foody, after they met at the preschool both of their children attended. Once they shared ideas and collaborated, they developed the Cloze concept and needed funding to launch — which also required relationships.

“Get the right people who will work with you shoulder to shoulder.” – Alex Coté

They were able to attract venture capital by standing out — they were “older” (almost 40), their experience was “well-rounded,” their business concept solved a problem, and their solution could be scaled up to become a big business. But Alex explained that at the beginning, the startup process is very human. “When you’re getting a company funded, you have no assets. You’ve got really nothing … They’re investing in you as a team, first and foremost.”

Here are three tips to help startup businesses get the human element right:

  • Find the right people for your core team: Alex said that putting the right team together is the biggest challenge in getting a new company off the ground. The reality is that once funding arrives, everyone is jamming, working long hours together toward a common goal. “Until you actually have a product that you’re charging for, and until you’re actually bringing in money, you are losing money every second of every day. Get the right people who will work with you shoulder to shoulder.”
  • Be transparent with your team: Alex explained that transparency within his company team is essential. By keeping everyone informed, you keep morale high and leverage everyone’s expertise.
  • Trust your team: The “command and control” concept may work in some situations, but you can’t expect to launch a startup that way. You want everyone on the team to feel they contributed, they helped build something. You have to trust them.

David then asked how the CEO/entrepreneur can balance the commercial needs (everything must get done today) with the social interaction needs (to include everyone, get consensus, etc.).

  • Balance vision with practicality: The entrepreneur needs to create the vision but also keep the tactical needs in mind to get things done.
  • Seek lots of input: Alex said at Cloze, they use their own products for first-hand experience. He even helps do customer support, which surprises people. But talking to real customers lets him hear the good and the bad, which influences direction. He also monitors social media and the press to find out what’s being said.
  • Keep everyone in the loop: At Cloze they use internal mechanisms to chat among team members. Work in pods together. Have a weekly lunch meeting where everyone brings things to the table, debates and discusses priorities. By doing these things, not much time goes by between decision points.

See David Amerland’s follow-up thoughts and a replay of this conversation, or watch for future “Power Talk” hangouts through Social Media Today on Google+. See you in the comments!


Paula Allen started at Bruce Clay Inc. in 2008 as a senior technical writer and now manages the company's content and documentation. An English lover at heart, Paula enjoys working in a team where grammar is frequently discussed and in an industry where there's always more to learn.

See Paula's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (3)
Filed under: Social Media Marketing
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3 Replies to “Help Your Brand by “Uncovering the Human Factor in Social Media Marketing””

Thank you very much for sharing knowledgeable article. Keep posting.

Paula, this is an excellent recap of the HOA. I really enjoyed how you took the conversation further – your insight takes the points to new heights. Thanks so much for taking the time to analyze the HOA, it means the world.

Paula Allen

That means a lot coming from you, Steve! Your points during the discussion opened my eyes to how far PR still needs to come, and how this thing called “being authentic” can really play out within a startup business or any organization. I look forward to finding your and Alex’s names on future HOA lineups.


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