One day, when I can retire from all this social media stuff and become comfortably rich on the conference circuit, I’ll pepper my sell-out keynote speeches with colourful metaphors like the following:

Social media is poop scoop, not turd polish.

Accept that sh*t happens
Scoop sign. From Minor Prophet, FlickrSo much communication today – from the public and private sectors – is predicated on the belief that silence, rebuttal or defensive lines will be enough. It won’t, not these days. Even if it makes the issue die down for a bit in the mainstream media, in the long run it will blow up again or gnaw away at your brand corrosively to make you look foolish, dishonest or even mildly unhinged. Similarly, social media quickly exposes fabrication and humiliates those responsible, so if you have skeletons in the closet then you’re best off coming clean. Try using the tools of social media to polish turds at your peril.

Lesson #1: expect sh*t, and go equipped with the tools to deal with it.

Take responsibility for it, and for clearing it up
No poop. From Johannal, FlickrScoopers accept that it’s up to them to clear up the mess, even if there’s nobody looking and even if it’s not easy. It’s not that you couldn’t just leave it – you might get away with that a few times – but eventually it will catch up with you, or you’ll find yourself in a community which is overrun with the stuff. In practical terms, that means it’s your responsibility – as customer service agent, a press officer, a policy official, whatever – to engage in the process of helping put the screw-ups right when you find them. That doesn’t necessarily mean whistleblowing (but there’s a role for that too), but it does mean being prepared to muck in yourself and recognise that you can help to fix it.

I’d love to see more public sector organisations using services like GetSatisfaction to help identify and address problems in service, harnessing the passion and ideas of our customers to help us solve the problem. Social media helps big organisations to turn frustration into solutions, and to spot the holes in customer service or policy more effectively than mystery shopping, market research or even [sharp intake of breath] classic consultation. But it means being seen to stoop and scoop, which we’re often not ready to do.

Lesson #2: own up to mistakes, and use some of the tools out there to help people help you put things right.

Do what people do in civilised society
Park bench, by robertotostes, FlickrNobody wants to live in a world of polished turds – it makes for a more cynical, frustrated, insular community. Social media can restore some of the sense of community where we give and take, praise and criticise, and earn a reputation based on the contribution we make, not the image we try to manufacture. The civilised organisation, the collaborative state, behaves honestly in the social media ecosystem, whether that’s introducing yourself, crediting the work of others, admitting mistakes or being up front about what you’re doing and why.

Lesson #3: be nice.

I’m so gonna regret writing this when someone picks me up me in the future for polishing a turd of my own. But for now, wish me luck next week as I work with some colleagues to broach one of the hardest topics in social media: scoop, don’t polish.

Image credits (from top): Minor Prophet, Johannal, Robertotostes

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Steph, I am not sure I would put rebuttal in with silence and defensive lines? For example, in the US at the moment there is a lie circulating that Obama is a Muslim, and it would appear that a significant number of Americans believe it. In that context rebuttal is absolutely part of the correct response.

If you have dropped a clanger and you claim you have not, that is not a rebuttal, it is somewhere between sophistry and a lie. A rebuttal is, IMHO, where you respond to a slur with the truth.


By your definition of rebuttal, you’re absolutely right – to be clear, the subject I’m really talking about here is where there is a legitimate case against the organisation or individual, not where there is a plain fallacy circulating.

That said, accusations are often laid at the door of public bodies which they then respond to (or choose not to respond to). It’s not necessarily that they’ve dropped a clanger, but the perception develops that they have, and the traditional responses (issue a press notice, give a line to a journalist etc) can come across as stuffy or defensive.

This is where some of the community tools of social media, together with a more open, human approach, can help to break down the rather siege mentality of accusation<->rebuttal.