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The Bulletin

Business communications lags technology, and it sometimes shows

Posting in Technology
For anybody that missed it, just before Christmas, Justine Sacco, executive with a major New York-based PR firm, posted a tweet and boarded a plane in London bound for South Africa. By the time she stepped off the plane from her 11-hour flight, she had been ostracized and pilloried across the globe, and unceremoniously fired by her employer. To be sure, Sacco's final tweet before she boarded was racist and insensitive.

Just a couple of weeks before that, on December 7th, the SpaghettiOs social media team received a similar drubbing from the social media world, for tweeting a goofy cartoon of a SpaghettiO character with a U.S. flag in observance of Pearl Harbor Day, a solemn day of remembrance.

The Sacco and SpaghettiOs incidents -- and others like it -- point to a shift that has taken place in the business communications realm, which we haven't quite fully grasped yet. Business communications has entered a new realm that calls for new types of training that haven't been designed.

In many ways, today's shift resembles one that took place more than a century ago in a world that Dale Carnegie helped to transform. In her recent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain discusses the radical shift business and society had undergone as the industrial revolution took hold in the early 1900s, as people moved off farms and into cities with factories and offices and suddenly found themselves crammed with strangers in a bewildering new world of commerce and urbanization:
"Americans found themselves no longer working with neighbors but with strangers. 'Citizens' morphed into 'employees,' facing the question of how to make a good impression on people to whom they had no civic or family ties. 'The reasons why one man gained a promotion or one woman suffered a social snub,' writes the historian Roland Marchand, "had become less explicable on grounds of long-standing favoritism or old family feuds. In the increasingly anonymous business and social relationships of the age, one might suspect that anything -- including a first impression -- had made the crucial difference.' Americans responded to these pressures by trying to become salesmen who could sell not only their company's latest gizmo, but also themselves."
Dale Carnegie built a huge business helping to address the awkwardness that people were dealing with in the new paradigm of the time, which also spawned many other courses, books and programs. Entire corporate training programs sprung up in the mid 20th century to train and polish their executives' and employees' business communication skills. Entire professions and industries -- public relations -- were born and thrived. Business communications became a staple curriculum at most colleges and universities. 

Now, social media is our primary method of business communication. In the process, business communications has gone global and real time. One person's snarky or ill-considered remark will be seen by millions around the world in a matter of seconds. Perhaps it's time for a new, upgraded "Dale Carnegie" set of instructions on how to cope and thrive in this new communications universe.

Or, perhaps, Dale Carnegie Institute Training itself already has the answer:  Apply tried-and-true principles across social media just as you would in a face-to-face office meeting. Make the other person feel as if they're the most important person in the room. The principles are as follows:

1) "Don't criticize, condemn or complain."
2) "Give honest, sincere appreciation."
3) "Arouse in the other person an eager want."
4) "Become genuinely interested in other people."
5) "Smile." (Yes, this vibe comes across in social media posts.)
6) "Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest sound in any language."
7) "Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves." (A skill sorely needed in social media.)
8) "Talk in terms of the other person's interests."
9) "Make the other person feel important -- and do it sincerely."

Obviously, Sacco and SpaghettiOs broke a few of these tenets. The lesson from Sacco is that business communication is a very personal thing, and whatever you say, in any location, may reflect on your organization as well. With SpaghettiOs, a brand has to be careful about what it puts out into the social media space.

Perhaps it's time for business communications skills to be more adroitly applied to the social media realm. Maybe new types of courses need to be designed to address the instantaneous nature of communications. The well-established rules are still relevant, but they need to be applied to the brave new world of social media.

(Thumbnail photo: HubSpot.)

— By on January 3, 2014, 6:58 PM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure