“This is Gary. He’s the new kid. He’s gonna just sit in the corner and do the Twitter stuff for us.” If that sounds at all familiar, we’ve got some news for you: your brand is about to be bombarded with invidious, hateful slander, and you’re all in serious danger. See, it turns out Gary is the most powerful person in your team. Gary could destroy you.

Please don’t let Gary destroy you; read this instead…

Still in its infancy

About three or four years ago, the job scene began to change. Searches involving the words ‘media’, ‘marketing’, ‘online’ and ‘journalism’ began to throw up positions for ‘social media officers’. And nobody was really sure what this was – not even the people hiring.

Social media officers were people like Gary, who joined on the premise that people with more experience couldn’t be bothered to sit staring at Tweetdeck all day responding to people. And so for a while, Gary just sat there trying to do what he thought he was being paid for, keeping quiet and trying not to get fired.

See, as genuinely mainstream forces, Facebook and Twitter have both been around for about five years now. In the world of business and branding that’s still an incredibly short time, so it’s understandable that, even now, nobody really has the slightest clue what they’re doing.

Breaking the rules

But the fact that nobody knows what the hell is going on, or how to ‘do’ social media is exactly what’s exciting. Earlier this year, author Neil Gaiman gave a speech to the 2012 University of the Arts, in which he said the following:

“People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.

If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.”

(Watch the whole thing here)

The same is completely true for brand-based social media. There aren’t any proper rules, and the people in charge are free to take the job and run in whichever mad direction they like. Thing is, when you let people run in any direction they like, they tend to pick one of two paths: really very good, or really very bad.

Or, to put it simply, it’s now becoming apparent that there actually is a right way and a wrong way to do social media, and it’s entirely dependent on whether you’ve hired the feckless Gary or his media-savvy superior… Erm, Andy. Let’s call him Andy.

The good, the bad and the brave

So Gary’s sitting in your company, tweeting things and occasionally responding to messages on Facebook. But he never thinks on his feet, or rises above the level of basic Twitter monkey. And occasionally, this garners abuse.

Andy, on the other hand, reports some messages to his managers, asks if they can do something out of the ordinary and, as a result, generates headlines, or does something that ends up on the front page of Reddit, or gets shared in your Facebook feed.

There’s something in the air at the minute: over the past seven days there have been three huge, news-making cases of social media-ing – two by the proverbial Andy, and one by Gary. The difference in response between the two? It could seriously be enough to make or break a brand.

Last week O2 UK made headlines by responding to a near illegible tweet from a street-speaking ManDem (customer) in the exact same lexicon. It was crazily daring, because it could easily have come across as one of the UK’s biggest companies being patronising in the face of a legitimate customer complaint.

But, thankfully, the tweet stuck to the wall – the exchange was picked up by the national newspapers, the PR blogs and everything in between.

Whether that caused a ripple in the PR world, or was completely unrelated, it was only a few days later that Bodyform knocked this masterpiece out of the park:

If O2 was being bold, Bodyform just completely threw out social media’s (first draft) rulebook. That video is genius simply because of how unexpected it is. Whoever was behind it (we doubt they were called Andy), obviously has the kind of gumption and gusto that every social media officer now needs to demonstrate. They saw a ranting Facebook post and decided to take it high enough up the ladder until there was suddenly a video team in place.

Predictably, it’s been well received across the board, with voices from all corners of the web calling for the now viral smash to garner awards. Rightly so; it’s just about the pinnacle of what you can do with a snarky post from a customer/user/troll. It’s a response to a Facebook post that’s probably done more for Bodyform’s brand than the past 20 years’ worth of screechy jingles combined.

But enough of this week’s good stuff; what’s been going on in Gary’s corner? Well, he’s been inadvertently ruining Thomas Cook’s public image. Yesterday the web aggregators were alive with the sound of an enormous missed opportunity.

A man by the name of Thomas Cook decided to ask the holiday company of the same name for compensation for the bullying he’s received, in the shape of a gratis holiday to Paris. And thus, Thomas Cook (the company) learned a valuable, if a little painful, lesson about the internet: if you don’t do something, somebody else definitely will.

TC turned down TC’s request. Gary there, not thinking smartly enough about the opportunity at hand. Shortly thereafter, TC (the person) received an offer from a rival holiday firm for a free trip to Paris – for a full week. And… Boom:

This wouldn’t have been an issue, were it not for the fact that the exchange landed on the front page of Reddit. But then that’s sort of the point here: you always have to aim for ‘viral’ – your social media team have to act as if everything will get picked up by the web writ-large.

Head to Thomas Cook UK’s Facebook page now if you want to see a torrent of unsolicited advice, like the frank but earnest ‘Sack your PR team.”

The most powerful seat in the house

Do you see where we’re going with this? That job listing from 2009 for an office junior to sit and make sure the Twitter feed doesn’t fall over now has one of the most powerful positions in the company.

Joe Public has two huge, very public points of contact with their brands now, and that puts a lot of responsibility on whoever’s monitoring them.

Certainly, you can’t go chucking free holidays or cobbling together viral videos left, right and centre, but you do definitely need to think about who it is that’s sat in that seat a lot more than most companies probably are.

Now, perhaps it’s time you had a chat about Gary?

Hot chat, right here!

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