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?

Disclosure.

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?

  • I hear you and totally agree! Unfortunately not everyone sees transparency in the same light – I’m doing my best to educate clients and “teach them how to fish” as they say so they can start doing the engaging themselves. Part of the challenge as I see it is this: most agencies want long term contracts with clients. Putting together a one-time strategic social media plan with a training component for a client doesn’t carry the same price tag as running its social media campaign whole hog for a year or two. That’s why some agencies want to run the client’s social media campaign from top to bottom though it’s not necessarily in the clients best interest. Wise agencies know it’s all about helping the client meet its goals and to do that one must think long-term which means ultimately putting the power of social media in their hands. That’s what I strive for and I’m glad to see I’m not alone in my thinking!

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  • Disclosure. Sure. But to be honest, I’m not convinced about the whole transparency debate and role of agencies. For my mind, businesses should focus on core competencies. If communications isn’t one, then ‘outsource’ it to someone who can do it better. Especially tactically!

  • Well argued. I couldn’t agree more. However, I sometimes fear that disclosure, as critical as it is, sometimes represents the easy way out. “It’s all good if you have full disclosure.” I think the ease of disclosure sometime means we don’t challenge ourselves to consider other ways of maximizing authenticity. As you rightly point out, the longterm play should be bringing tactical execution in-house for optimal authenticity.

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  • Well said Dave. I think with any agency relationship it’s important to have some sort of in-house expertise to work with the agency and to fully know what’s going on. I think there’s a misconception among some executives that they can just hire an agency to do all their PR, social media or whatever, but the most successful agency relationships happen when there are resources on both sides to work together and complement each other.

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  • Agreed. I always say we can do it in a pinch, with full disclosure, but the long term goal is to get the client’s ready to take over the day-to-day themselves.

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  • Agree with transparency, but also believe agencies can stay involved with every aspect of SM. As this new world develops it won’t just be about conversation and community (though that will always be essential) it will also be about ideas, content, creativity. The latter is, or should be, the benefit of agencies. When we launched Olympus’s new EP-1 entirely with SM (by the way, the product sold out immediately) it was because of how we built, gathered, inspired a following and their influencers, but also because the content we created was fresh and original. All transparent, of course. Agencies are crazy not to master every aspect and offer more expertise to clients than the clients can muster themselves. Finally, as tech, programming, content, SEO, and creativity become more and more inter-dependent, agencies have a lot to offer, providing they figure it all out.

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  • Agreed. As an agency person working with a large CPG beer company, the legal restrictions and layers of approvals would make an agency’s efforts less agile. I believe the long term solution should come from in-house.

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  • Great post! It’s a question that’s been asked about everything from newsletters to web content over the years: who takes it on, the client or the agency? You’ll find clients who have no skills, money or inclination to do communications work, outsourcing everything. Then there are those who take an active role in it, allot resources toward it, etc. Many fall somewhere in between, and the key is to find a balance that best serves the brand. I’ve watched overzealous, uninformed CEOs take on communications work and do irreparable damage to their own brands. As in the case of newsletters, web content, and all else that came before social media, there are some times when communications can and should be done on the client side, and times when it probably shouldn’t.

    The key difference with social media, however, is that transparency has been so integral to its development that sending a single tweet on behalf of somebody else can get you called a cheat and a liar. But shouldn’t we be asking: What is that Twitter account or blog primarily being used for? Is it engaging with potential new customers? Promotional deals? Customer service? Fun? Brand awareness? Depending on the purpose and goals of the client’s social media outlets, having the agency manage them may be the best option. And if that is the case, does that mean agencies always HAVE to come clean that they are the ones managing it? Would you immediately think JetBlue was a fraud if you found out the guy sending out the rate deals on Twitter every day worked for Arnold Worldwide?

    Food for thought, to be sure. But as things evolve, so too will the etiquette. My personal feeling is A) Be transparent whenever possible, B) Have the client manage communications whenever it’s the best solution for them (i.e., they aren’t going to damage their own brand doing it), and C) Manage the communications on the agency side whenever necessary…

  • With the limitless nature of social media I see agencies being essential to a client’s success. I think it will be interesting to see how the client/agency relationship will evolve. With the pace and transparency required in social media, I imagine the client and the agency will grow more intermingled as we move forward. It some cases it might start getting hard to tell who works where.

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  • Dave – I’m really glad you took up this topic because my sentiments were similar to yours when I asked the questions.

    In an effort to encourage transparency (which I fully endorse) I think some people are of the mindset that the best we agencies can do if provide a strategy and crash course in the tools and then leave it at that. No participation and no assistance. However, we’ve run into a lot of clients who simply don’t want that. They want help with execution because we are the communications specialists. Seems fair to me.

    There are a lot of things an agency can do to support a client’s social media program. Brand monitoring can be extremely time consuming – let the agency watch for conversations that need attention. The agency can also help craft messaging and create tactical programs within the larger strategy. Editorial calendar shaping for a blog. Posting galleries on Facebook. There are lot’s ways an agency can support a social media strategy for a client and frankly, no company will have the appropriate tools to go it alone with a one day immersion. In a perfect world someone in-house will have both the skill set and the bandwidth to handle it, but it simply isn’t logical to believe everyone can have that at the get go.

    @rachelakay

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  • Really well argued post. I definitely agree that in the long term the best scenario is where the client themselves are the ones engaging/blogging/tweeting etc – after all they are (or should be!) the experts in their field and the best people to talk to their community. Not to mention the fact that people are pretty sharp on picking up fakers.

    But it’s difficult with some clients, either because they dont have time, dont know how or arent convinced of the value in doing it. You pose an interesting model of how to lead them up to the point where they are ready. Would you be able to show a couple of examples of how you write your disclosures? That would be very interesting!

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  • Completely agree… Recently discussed this during a social media panel with marketing professionals here in Belgium…

    To me the whole final purpose of social media is that they get integrated into the business of an organization where and when it makes sense (Potential Examples: Twitter for customer support, blogging for PR, wikis for internal and external collaboration etc…)

    Therefore an agency can certainly help in the start up phase but ultimately the core business supported by social media will have to handled by the company itself.

    Agency can then still support with strategy, training, ad hoc support etc…

    200% with you on transparency but then again, it doesn’t “cover it all”… Authenticity is starting to play a bigger role I think.

    At least, that’s my opinion & 2 cents.

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