Three lessons to be learnt from Vodafone’s Social Media Fail

Today, Vodafone India got a story on the front page of the Economic Times — India’s largest financial daily, for perhaps, the country’s biggest social media fail. And I’m sure some people reading the story are going to blame social media campaigns for the soup Vodafone is in.

The fact of the matter is simple: Vodafone told a customer to shut up. The question they need to ask themselves is this: would they tell a customer to shut up if he were standing in front of them, complaining face to face. Chances are, no matter how tempted they might be, they would control themselves, listen, and try and mollify the customer.

You see that’s what happens in a conversation.

When brands and companies continue to treat social media as a method of communication — a one way street, where they can “engage customers” (read “get customers to click the like button”), this is what could well happen to them.

Three lessons for brands:

1. Publishing has been democratized. Everybody online is a publisher with the power to reach millions of people. Everybody. Having more money doesn’t automatically mean you can out-publish an individual.

2. Don’t tell people you don’t like to shut up by sending them legal notices. If a customer is complaining, you need to listen and either choose to respond if he’s genuine, or ignore the guy if he’s making a mountain out of a non-existent molehill.

3. You can’t afford to not be on social media. And you can’t let advertisers tell you what to do. Advertisers sell. They communicate. They don’t know the first thing about a conversation — because that’s not how they’ve been trained. In fact, most social media agencies operate like ad agencies — they talk marketing speak “reach”, “impact” etc. Wake up and smell the coffee: it’s a conversation. And you, the brand, is a participant in a conversation. Behave like you would if you were at a meeting: don’t shout, don’t ignore what others are saying, listen, and respond.

How hard is that?

Very. Most marketeers and advertisers are trained from day one to think about communication aimed at selling and brand building. Their tools are mass-media vehicles that lots of people consume, or “interact with”. I’ve always wondered what that means — interaction. Press a button and hear a sound. So what! The answer, normally, is couched in a sentence that includes the phrase: “brand recall”.

Here’s my take on it — it works.

But, it doesn’t work everywhere. It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

If everybody’s a publisher, what you need to become is a reporter. You need to think editorial NOT advertorial.

Welcome to my world.

Barkhagate: there is a reason editors do not go out and report

The newsroom is a strange place filled with large egos, competing motives, and everybody suffers from the illusion that they are RIGHT. The only reason that a newsroom works is that there are checks and balances. At least, that’s what we’re told.

As a former journalist, I think its important to point out the most fundamental premise on which all these checks and balances are based: reporters are too close to the story, so editors who have no interest in keeping sources happy grill reporters and satisfy themselves before allowing a story to get published.

That’s how it works in newsrooms across the world, and in most in print newsroom in India. Television newsrooms, however, are a whole different story. Almost every news channel in India has a reporter at the top of the pyramid. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in an anchor going out and reporting. There is something wrong when a reporter, talking to sources all the time, calls the shots.

You see, a reporter needs to cultivate sources … to string them along, to build relationships based on something that, for all practical purposes, resembles trust.

An editor doesn’t need to do any of the above. In fact, most editors I’ve known have to put up with all sorts of pressure to carry, or more often not carry, stories. The fact is, having reporters do the reporting gives them a certain amount of distance and deniability, which is often invaluable in not only judging a story’s merits and dealing with external pressure.

In TV newsrooms it doesn’t work like this any longer. Barkha is the Group Editor of NDTV, Rajdeep can have the last word if he chooses to in CNN-IBN, Arnab at Times Now is more commentator than editor, or reporter.

I had the pleasure of working with the former head of Sky News UK. He never appeared on TV. He never reported on a story while he was there. But he was the boss, he was the one with the ultimate responsibility for news calls. And simply because of this distance, even in the hurly burly world of 24×7 news bulletins, he could take calls that the reporter bringing the story in never could.

Unfortunately, in India, almost no checks and balances are imposed in TV newsrooms on the senior-most reporters.

Barkha was too focused on the story of the moment to wonder about the big picture. That’s her explanation. And she’s right. No reporter can be expected to think about the big picture. Their job is to focus on the here and now.

That’s why you need editors …