The dark art of social media – influencers or informers?

I was reading the Sunday Times recently and came across an article which I found quite baffling. As a PR agency we work with brands to raise their profile across social media platforms including blogs, facebook and twitter through engagement and interaction. As a result, I know only too well that this process is not a simple one, nor is it a ‘quick win’.

In my opinion it is quite simply an opportunity for someone who has credibility within their network to talk about your product or service and to provide their personal comments and opinions about it. These are not always positive and that is the risk that you take when working with social media channels – or it is, unless you are McDonalds.

The article I was reading was titled ‘McDonalds recruit blogger to super-size its allure’ and was written by Mark Harris. I immediately thought that would mean that McDonalds were recruiting an internal team, or a social media champion, for each of its geographies. No. McDonalds have ‘recruited’ more than 400 bloggers who are known as the McDonald’s Family Arches Community. This community receive benefits as a result of blogging favourably about the brand.

This isn’t too dissimilar to the approach taken by many brands. I don’t necessarily agree with it but it seems to work and there’s no harm in offering free samples for review, after all you want the person to interact with the brand and to understand the products in order to give an informed view.

The line does however stop at offering stays in hotels, exclusive trips away and benefits based on the number of favourable comments or posts you provide for a brand. That isn’t social media, that’s social advertising. It’s not informed, nor is it factual, it’s biased and unbalanced.

If I was engaging with a blogger and found that they were receiving all-expenses paid trips as a result of posting favourable comments about a company, product or service I wouldn’t consider them credible. In fact, quite the opposite.

The article goes on to state that McDonalds wants ‘its own private network over which it could exert more control’. I think they are massively missing the point here. It’s not about control, it’s about comment and opinion. It’s about believing so strongly in your product that by association you encourage others to love it too. You want people to want to talk about your brand favourable and yes, there are times when that isn’t going to be the case – after all you can’t please everyone – but you manage that process by interacting.

Communication isn’t about telling someone what to say, it’s about a dialogue. Putting words into someone’s mouth will not drive genuine value for the brand, it will discourage people from believing anything the company chooses to say in the future.

A quote which appears in the article states ‘And if they start doing stuff we don’t want, we are going to take action’. It seems to me that McDonalds have got this very wrong. It’s not so much super-size as super silly.

My advice, for what it’s worth, would be for McDonalds to review this strategy and to review it quickly. You cannot buy brand values and if the case is that the business cannot and do not genuinely believe in what they are offering then the seriousness of this situation goes far beyond social communication.

It’s fair to say that the McDonalds business model is used as an example of best practice. When you go into a McDonalds you know where you are, you know what you’re getting and every establishment is run in exactly the same way – you cannot do the same with a social network of communicators.

It will be interesting to see what happens when the Family of Arches is rolled out in Britain. I only hope the bloggers that are chosen see past the benefits and consider what getting involved will do to their credibility and reputation.