Especially in the midst of a pandemic, going viral may not be a good thing
For those who have followed me on Twitter long enough to remember the ‘good old days’, when bad #cdnpoli jokes and sarcasm felt more appropriate, let me first point out the obvious: no individual — not me, nor any pundit, CEO, politician, influencer or anyone who broadcasts to large audiences — should ever share hot takes about COVID-19 on social media in these fraught times without first running the take by a trusted peer.
Broadcasting political #opinions liberally is one thing; broadcasting misinformation that can lead people to make decisions that may negatively impact their health is a more serious abuse of our self-publishing tools. Adding a hashtag to misinformation or even credible-but-incomplete information can have serious consequences.
As our team at TNKR Media prepares for the Autumn of the New Normal, helping professionals prepare for a complicated time on the communications front both externally and internally, we’ve taken a look back at two quarters of chaos under the pandemic thus far. We’ve found some highlights, some concerns and many lessons.
If you’re behind on your crisis comms planning, check out tips and resources in my Crisis Comms Essentials blog from April, complete with a PR crisis hub template.
Share only what you know* to be true
We’re still learning about COVID-19 every day and, without long-term study, what we know to be true may not be true in the future. This new virus is certainly the most challenging news story of the social media era.
A good rule of thumb is to only share rules and guidelines outlined by your regional government’s health authority, or news items that result from peer-reviewed study by established medical or scientific institutions. If you only share what you believe to the very best of your knowledge to be true, and you run it by a colleague known for their sound judgment, you’ll easily be in the top tier of responsible online brands.
Thankfully, the social networks are monitoring disinformation related to COVID-19. Don’t feel bad if your post gets flagged—chances are, if it is flagged, it is not justified; more of a user-initiated safeguard. But the flag is also a learning opportunity. Ask yourself what about the wording of the post caused confusion, or even a strong reaction among some in the audience; get as close as you can to neutral language until we learn more.
As I wrote in my last blog, I was stunned to see high-profile Canadian political figures piggybacking on COVID-19-related hashtags to spread misinformation about mainstream journalism; in this case, the Globe & Mail newspaper.
Reminder: a hashtag like #COVID19 is a search parameter. Those clicking on the hyperlinked hashtag want to find resources and information related to the virus. They do not expect, nor do they generally appreciate, political propaganda, various hot takes, frivolous entertainment or sales-driven clickbait in these spaces.
Use the hashtag to deliver information that community expects to receive. If you can’t find the right community online through a hashtag, create one!
You can just not…
You don’t have to post on social media today, or even this week. One more time for those at the back: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO POST!
It’s important for most brands to fill out profiles on three or four of the major social networks for search engine optimization (SEO) but no one expects you to pump out content every hour anymore, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Your process for determining what content, personally or organizationally, will be shared should have become more selective this year, not less. If you are posting more than you were last year, and you are not in the medical field or another essential service, there’s something not quite right.
And because online communication inevitably suffers when people are anxious, be extra careful what #opinions you share. As I’ve said to many colleagues producing controversial material over the years, “you can say that, and I’ll defend your right to say it, but also demonstrate why you’re saying that.”
Thinkbait and the Slow Content Movement
Our reflection on content strategy started in earnest in Summer 2016, as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was becoming a drain on Facebook and we immediately adivsed clients to scale back their Facebook use.
We’ve been watching the “slow content movement” since early 2017 (it may have began as a protest against Twitter’s original 140 character limit for posts); presumably, early adopters were also concerned with questions of media and democracy, but also marketing efficacy.
Needless to say, during a pandemic where critical information is most important, we’re doubling down on the strategy, which we could also describe more pretentiously as something like Small Batch Artisanal Content, or Organic Craft Content. Whatever you call it, fewer posts (or blogs or newsletters) are preferred, containing the maximum of useful information, until things are back to normal.
Unlike traditional web marketing companies, we like boring. We like boring graphs that show steady growth and few unpredictable variations. If this pandemic has taught us in the content business anything, it should be that going viral isn’t always a good thing.
Case study: Slow, gradual growth under normal circumstances and significantly increased engagement with Thinkbait in crisis.
Opportunities for going viral are limited but misinformation can really take off in a crisis; fact-checking to the best of your ability always helps, but the overriding lesson for pandemic-era social media is that, with every post, content producers must ask themselves: Does this help?
A decade ago before fully leaping into PR/marketing, I was reading and becoming inspired by utilitarian marketers who preached creating value, community and realness in online activities. Little did we know, only a few years later, we’d discover how we presented our online content was making us sick and antisocial, and some of the content could be making us complacent about a potentially deadly virus.
Utility — helping people — is slowly becoming a content strategy that’s not only increasingly good for business but also helps us all sleep better at night.
Dan Delmar is the co-founder and managing partner, communications at TNKR Media.
Photo: Unsplash / @enginakyurt