Don't Feed the Algorithm: Countering Social Media Messaging, Research Time, 09/07/2015

I haven’t written about communications theory and practice on the blog since finishing my public relations program at Sheridan. I've spent this summer looking for a job and keeping busy with volunteering for my favourite political party for Canada's federal election this Fall, as well as writing for this blog and a few other venues.

As I’ve looked at the job market, I see how many new positions (even those coming up in the relatively dry times of high summer) regard social media management. But, judging from my own experience talking with communications professionals online, in person, at formal events, casually, and even at the occasional job interview, I don’t think the subtle aspects of online platforms are universally understood.

In other words, well-heeled communications professionals with years of experience who sit at prestigious positions in the profession have made amateur mistakes because they don’t understand the medium.

Stare at a word cloud for as long as you want, you'll still have to understand the anarchic
structure of online media platforms if you're going to use them without falling on your face.
The obvious examples are already famous. You can find them on plenty of PR-related listicles. #McDStories or #susanalbumparty or anything on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed come to mind. My cautionary criticism doesn't apply to everyone, of course, but these mistakes happen often enough to provide content for quite a few listicles. 

Here's an example from my own recent experience, of how the algorithm that generates Facebook’s news feed can work against the public embrace of a company's messaging. 

Uber is facing a lot of opposition in Toronto from taxi companies, because the ride-sharing platform is correctly seen as able to undercut taxis massively while dodging regulations that taxis must obey. They've done a very good job of controlling the popular discussion of the company, framing themselves as free market challengers to a taxi cartel.

The reputation of Uber founder Travis Kalanick is
almost as controversial as that of his company.
But there's another narrative opposing Uber that’s relevant to an audience beyond just my city of Toronto: revealing their labour practices. Uber treats its drivers as independent contractors, considering its app as a networking platform to connect drivers with passengers. 

Uber offloads the cost of gas, insurance, the cars themselves, and the risk of operation to its drivers. Uber drivers have no control or even input into the company’s rates, which makes them vulnerable to working for less than minimum wage. 

Uber also maintains that client satisfaction must be prioritized at all cost, summarily firing drivers whose average feedback score dips below 4.7. It creates a climate of fear, because even a few too many genuinely satisfied 4/5 passenger feedback scores constitute grounds for dismissal.

Uber’s labour practices are horrific.* This message is extremely poor for the company, provoking resistance among potential customers and generally hostile public opinion. 

* Full disclosure: I completely agree with this message, and will never ride with Uber, become an Uber driver, or work in their offices. I think I’ll be okay pursuing other career opportunities.

So, the lesson for social media communications. I posted an article to my personal Facebook wall yesterday that laid out these concerns quite concisely. Its comment threads included a long discussion that lasted for a day afterward, including agreement and disagreement. Even after a pro-Uber comment, my critical post returned to the top of many people's news feeds.

The internet can be a monstrous place.
In my communications training, I learned that the first response to a message contrary to the interests of my company is to counter it. Act to put the alternate narrative in the public eye, either in direct dialogue with the original hostile speaker, or engaging on your own with the same audience.

With online social media, this would imply joining the discussion, promoting the positive messages, and downplaying or disproving the negative ones. Ideally, your conversation would convince one of the opposing participants to change their minds.

But not every exchange will go this way. Even the best communicators can't convince everyone. And if, for transparency's sake, you have to reveal yourself as a company person, then your words will be doubly distrusted because of your own interest.

Here's what throws a wrench into the public relations orthodoxy of ‘Engage, or else.’ Facebook’s news feed algorithm returns posts to the top with every new comment. No matter how well your arguments may proceed in the comments, the post itself will keep appearing. And at a certain point, people will avoid reading the long and lengthening comment thread, and they'll only see the initial negative post. 

So the smartest course is to promote your own company's posts and pages, planning future messages in response to the critical or negative ideas you find in the wider social media sphere.

Honestly, this should be old news, the insight of a reasonably perceptive person who’s still new to the industry. But that this scenario challenges a long-accepted imperative of media relations is a sign that adapting to the new media era requires fundamental strategic rethinking, and above all, an open mind to unlearning what you once thought obvious.

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