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Social media & professional service firms: The authenticity paradox

Many a professional services firm understands the potential value of social media as a channel. There is often a divergence between those who manage the firm’s social media channels and who are desperately trying to get partners to leverage their personal networks; and the partners themselves, who are uncomfortable about social media and aren’t really sure what to do with it.

A part of every professional services firms marketing plan will include PR. It might not be called PR, it might be considered relationship building, or awareness raising, but when you think about what PR comprises, it is hard to think of a firm that is not engaged in it. The PESO PR model captures the four main media types - paid, earned, shared and owned – and is a useful starting point.

Most firms will start with owned media (blogs, websites, podcasts, etc.) because this media type is easier to control and free to distribute. Shared media, underneath which sits social media, is slightly harder to control, but also, for the most part, free. It tends to follow quickly after owned media in a firm’s PR timeline and much time will be spent trying to leverage its power. Not least because the rewards are so big. Whilst social media offers incredible rewards, it also falls short for so many, in this blog we explore why.

A social media success story

Gymshark (not a professional services company) recently hit all the headlines by becoming the most elusive of companies: a unicorn. What was their success down to? No doubt, when its success is dissected in the business books, social media will be one of the reasons mentioned. What was it about Gymshark’s use of social media that propelled it from a guy stitching labels on tops in a garage to a brand taking on the likes of Nike? Yes, it tapped into all the different social media channels available, but, perhaps more importantly, it was its authentic use of social media that was so powerful.

Ben Francis (the founder of Gymshark) likes to work out. He reached out not to "influencers" but to people he idolised. He posted pictures that appealed to him. He wrote comments that meant something to him. He wasn’t bound by a social media policy, or worried about keeping the company tone of voice. He could engage with his followers – and Gymshark has followers in the millions – because to him, he was just engaging with fellow fitness fans. Moreover, Ben as a Gen Y, he had grown up with social media. Not only did this give him an insight into this media channel that many Gen X partners lack, but it also meant that he possessed an authenticity that many Gen X lack.

Can professional services firms be authentic on social media?

Social media in professional services firms is split between the firm’s own account and the individual accounts of its professionals. Company accounts are controlled by the comms or digital marketing teams. Most firms will also have a policy which professionals need to follow to make sure that personal use of social media does not bring the firm into disrepute.

Herein lies the paradox, how can a firm account be authentic, when particularly in the case of larger firms, the account and the partners rarely meet? Furthermore, how can social media be authentic when what individuals post is monitored? If authenticity is what it takes to harness the power of social media, how can firms achieve it?

Firm accounts: a case of meeting expectations

In most cases a firm has a company account which is controlled by a marketing team. This might be a corporate page on LinkedIn, twitter or Instagram. However, whatever the social media brand of choice, it is usually a means of broadcasting. Company news and articles will be shared with followers. The purpose is usually to drive traffic to a website or increase sign-ups to an event.

Some accounts may engage with followers: questions might be answered; complaints handled; business partnerships might be “strengthened” by sharing content from other corporate pages. However, this is normally as far as it goes. Rarely is a firm account an authentic representation of what the partners in the business think and feel.

Followers arguably do not expect firm accounts to be authentic or to engage in a conversation with the managing partner through its twitter account. Followers might be employees, strategic partners or clients looking for updates on law or accounting rules. Authentic comment and engagement are not what they sign up for.

Now, those “in the know” will say that social media works through engagement and having a conversation. By extension, they try to apply the rules of individual accounts to corporate ones and will strive to make their corporate accounts have a personality. In smaller firms this is perhaps easier to do. Accounts can be owned by a professional or group of professionals. The names and faces of the authors can be shown and the content can move from “we” to “I”.

Does this work? Arguably it is better and more engaging than a faceless broadcasting channel, but the professionals are engaging because they have to, and it is usually a case of hitting targets with posts, rather than being inspired to share content that they are passionate about. It isn’t very authentic. What’s more, if follower expectations are met with the standard corporate broadcasts, and firm click through rates and sign-ups goals are met, perhaps it is more authentic to leave it there? Is trying to make a corporate a person a case of dressing a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Individual accounts offer a chance for authenticity

Clearly value is to be had in harnessing the power of the multitude of professionals who are in the firm. If you add up the individual connections of all the professionals in a firm and compare it to the company account, the numbers are always quite sobering. Why? People connect with people. They want to hear what that person has to say and find out what they have been up to. Surely then, here professionals can be authentic?

The rise of the personal brand

There are a number of individual professionals who have started to create a brand that is authentic to them. These professionals are staying true to themselves; they are writing about things they care about. In doing so they are creating a following that is individual to them. They are not writing as the firm. Many, particularly where the professionals are lawyers, make sure that it is known that their views are their own. They steer clear of mentioning their firms because they don’t want to have to get sign-off from the comms team. Consequently, they rarely share the content that has popped up on their firm accounts.

And herein lies the paradox. When firms try to leverage the social media accounts of professionals, they end up eroding the authenticity that makes the professionals individual accounts a commodity. They treat these individual accounts as if they were corporate ones. They do exactly what they say they should not be doing with their firm accounts.

First, a social media policy is drafted, setting out what is and is not acceptable. There is usually a conversation around what the profile pictures should be. Sometimes these are standardised, often the firm corporate photo is preferred. Internal emails are sent encouraging professionals to share the content on the firm page, some teams might send the links of the latest posts for all to share. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but if this is all the professional offers it will suffer the same shortcomings as the firm page.

Now, there are obvious reasons why firms are nervous about giving individuals carte blanche over their social media accounts. However, these reasons are usually grounded in fear. Fear that professionals might be defamatory, or racist, or leak confidential information. Given the selection criteria used to hire these professionals into the firm, how well founded are these fears? Then there is the fear of a PR disaster or something going viral. Paradoxically, the later is sometimes what the firm is seeking. Then there is the fear that the individuals will become larger than the firm itself. They might get poached, overshadow, or move on.

Time is not taken to encourage rogue behaviour. The focus is to standardise. However, if individuals are encouraged to write and broadcast in a way that is more suited to a corporate page, what hope is there for authenticity?

Where gems exist in a firm. Professionals who are not afraid to voice their opinions and who, in so doing, attract followers of their own, they should be celebrated. Lessons should be learnt and perhaps it’s time to relax in terms of what is or isn’t monitored.

Is it time to encourage individuality?

Firms need to start thinking about individual accounts as just that, individual, but not only that, they should think of them as personal to the professional. The three-line whip to republish content, whilst well meaning, should perhaps be rethought. When would republishing this content be authentic and how to achieve that? Social media policies should be reviewed and the boundaries, whilst well intended, considered with a different lens. Are they preventing professionals from being authentic?

Whilst there are behaviours and views that will never be acceptable – there is no place for racist or discriminatory views on LinkedIn, just as there is no place for these in the workplace – perhaps the limits imposed should only reflect these abhorrent statements. Is your policy going too far?

How do you encourage authenticity?

One of the things that has been welcomed over the course of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has offered a chance to see the human side of colleagues. The working parent who has not had to shy away from presenting their child on video conference. The cat lover who has been able to have their furry friend on their lap whilst discussing a project with colleagues. The partner with a secret love of glitter.

This authenticity has been borne out of necessity. The need has expanded trust in teams. People have seen that this is ok. Some of this has spilled onto social media, but perhaps not to the extent it has in the day-to-day.

To encourage authenticity, you have to have a culture of trust. A culture where professionals know that they can share their authentic selves online without being controlled or monitored. Without feeling that they need to qualify that the views are their own.

What does that mean for our social media training?

Most social media training in professional services firms focuses on best practice. The focus is usually on a specific platform, LinkedIn being a favourite. It will go through individual profiles and set out how professionals can update theirs. There will be a suggestion of what photos should look like, how you job titles should be set out, what the summary should say. It will explain how networks can be expanded and how to approach targets or clients. It might even talk through some of the mystery of algorithms. Why you should use a hashtag or why you should link to your article in the comments rather than send people off in the post. Now, some of this is valuable.

However, the key message in every training course should be that for professionals to get any value from social media, what they post needs to be authentic. They should write what they would want to read. They might want to right about something that has nothing to do with their specialist subject.

Forget authenticity at your peril. If all you do is encourage professionals to toe the party line and become a personification of your corporate account, your efforts will be in vain.



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