Social Media Agencies and Transparency

On Tuesday, Rachel Kay asked a thought-provoking question during a Twitter Q&A with fellow PR practitioner Sarah Evans:

How involved can an agency get in a clients SM execution & remain transparent?

In my view, agencies can get involved in every aspect of clients’ social media execution without sacrificing transparency. I say that not just from personal opinion, but because I’ve been there.

Note: I say “can” not “should aim to be.” More on that in a moment.

I place great importance on transparency (see my earlier posts on ghost blogging if you need convincing). However, that hasn’t stopped me from being involved in the full gamut of social media strategy development and execution, from brainstorming and drafting through to manning the Twitter account and blog.

How do you achieve that level of involvement while maintaining integrity?


We make a point of disclosing client relationships at every turn. That runs from disclosure in blog comments, to naming individuals in bios on blogs and Twitter accounts, to even naming who is writing individual tweets. By disclosing who you are, transparency is maintained.

Now, on to an important issue: I don’t think this is an ideal long-term solution.

In the short term, there are many reasons why an agency might get involved in executing social media tactics:

  • Clients may not have sufficient capacity to undertake the work
  • Clients may lack the expertise necessary to execute at the best level
  • Clients may want to pilot-test an initiative before committing in-house resources

All of these are valid short-term reasons.

However, in the long-term I think the best solution is for much of the tactical execution to be taken in-house if appropriate staff with the right skillsets and framework within which to operate are available. Agency roles in the long-term are best played as a strategic advisor, training staff, developing ideas and strategic direction and offering advice on tactics where required. Agencies can also play a valuable role doing some of the “arms and legs” work – monitoring, reporting, designing and developing online properties, email campaigns, etc.

In summary, agencies can be involved in every aspect of social media execution without compromising transparency. That just doesn’t mean they always should be.

For the record, here’s Sarah Evans’ response to the question:

I think that agency SM involvement should ultimately result in biz’s online sustainability (i.e. can they do it themself?)… #prexaminer

It’s a lot about working with them, teaching, listening, identifying (or creating) the right tools. #prexaminer

…I created a “clients” section on my blog to disclose who I’m working with. I’ll be up front if we’re connected. #prexaminer

What do you think?

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  • Disclosure and transparency are nice, but can an agency truly be the voice of a company in SM?

    I can see it in the beginning: The company doesn’t have a program yet, and let’s assume an agency has the manpower and expertise to build one for them. So for the first few months, the agency is actually managing that SM presence, building a network, etc. Let’s call this Phase 1.

    Then what? Isn’t the point of all this to connect customers with the company and the company with customers? If the agency (a proxy, an intermediary) now becomes a filter, a gate-keeper, an outside agent of that company, how can that connection be made?

    How does an agency, for example, handle customer service or support conversations online? (A BIG component of a social media program.)

    How does an agency replace the public’s taste for connecting with people inside the company – rather than the company’s “account(s)” on Twitter or wherever?

    When it comes to PR, promos, etc., I can see it. And agency can serve a client in the SM space. But when it comes to engagement, enhancing customer loyalty, forging true connections, outsourcing to an agency is not an effective model, regardless of disclosure or transparency.

    I can see it as a component of a hybrid model (part client, part agency involvement / Joint inside and outside team), but that’s about the extent of it.

    Ultimately, someone has to help the company/client build an internal practice that doesn’t rely on an agency to actually manage and execute on a SM program.

    Good points, though. 😉

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  • Olivier – agreed. Agencies are well-placed to help companies deal with social media in the short term (transparently), but in the long term the optimum approach is likely for the company to use in-house resources to execute while the agency takes a strategic role and assists with the non-public facing side.

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  • Rachel makes some great points above. And I do think there’s some execution agencies and solos can help clients with. However, I tend to fall where you do Dave on the whole “long-term” solution. And, I’ll take you one step further. Not only should agencies play the role of strategies and counselor in the social space long term, we should be helping clients look -1-2 years out and help them anticipate challenges and opportunities based on new technology and tools. That’s the real value I think agencies will bring to the table in the social space in the next few years.


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  • Great post and topic, Dave.

    At Brains on Fire, companies engage us to ignite the program, find the passionate folks inside or outside of the company walls, provide them with the online/offline tools they need to spread that passion – and then most importantly – train them on how to use those tools and how to be completely transparent.

    The very cool thing is that we are true partners with our clients and they allow us to be very transparent in our relationship. We don’t write blog posts, etc for them – that’s what the leaders of the movement do, but we are the day-to-day liaison for the community and the brand. Now, the leaders of the movement have a direct pipeline into the brand HQ, but we’re usually left on to help with the day-to-day logistics. And we’re allowed to remain completely transparent in that relationship.

    We never, ever create content. We enable the leaders of the movement to do it in their own voice, with their own topics and their own opinions.

    We find the best strategy, the best tools and then execute on them.

    So my answer is that agencies shouldn’t create content, but there’s no reason they can’t continue to be involved with the movement long after it’s been ignited. And we’ve got a heap of case studies that prove my point.

  • Great article. I feel transparency is something that is missing. A lot of times when brands work with agencies, especially when it comes to social media the agency themselves are utilizing their own 3rd party to help design, plan, and execute a strategy. I can tell you that in many cases, the brand itself is not aware of this and the executed agreement may have verbiage that totally disallows transparency. This is difficult for third parties who’s main focus is social media because they can no longer speak of the brand actually being a client even though they have deployed the promo/strategy on their behalf. Will be interesting to see how these relationships evolve.

  • To me, your assessment is spot on. Help with execution where you have to. But no one is going to believe a social media presence being puppeteered (is that a word?) by a PR shop. It’s different than before, where PR types recommended soup-to-nuts programs then executed much or all of them (if we could talk them into paying us to do so.)

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