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Chinese Whispers: 3 golden rules for social media

When overnight blasts from a chemical warehouse in Tianjin claimed at least 50 lives this week and made thousands more homeless, the world’s media shone a light on critical failings associated with China’s industrial growth.

The way the story was reported tells us a huge amount about social media – why you need it and how to manage it.

My goal in this blog is to illustrate three golden rules of social media through recent examples – good and bad – that will help your business avoid social media disaster.

1. Chinese whispers

For me, the most noteable aspect of the way the Tianjin explosions were reported on Twitter and Facebook was that there was a complete absence of statement from the Chinese authorities.


For one simple reason: both are officially banned in China.

The degree of state censorship in China prevents the timely release of information surrounding fast-moving events.

Even, the most popular social network in China, has been routinely attacked and disabled by a government hell-bent on controlling the flow of information. shows the uncensored material they don’t want you to see.

In this social media vacuum, hearsay, speculation, rumour and gossip fill the social media airwaves.

One prominent journalist’s latest theory talks of cyanide being among the leaked chemicals.

But of course, no official will confirm or deny.

All we know from the government is that there was an explosion after firefighters reached the scene.

The causes of the fire and explosion are still under investigation and local authorities refuse to shed light on the cause or the nature of the chemicals.

social media training courses scotland Tianjin.

A quick look at Twitter shows over a thousand tweets per hour about #Tianjin.

Yet the Chinese authorities, responsible for reporting the facts surrounding the event, is declining to comment.

Imagine it was your loved one that was missing.

All you have to rely on is a couple of state-sponsored news publications, China Central Television and the People’s Daily.

The former plays a journalistic role in providing commentary on the ‘heart-breaking’ story of a young firefighter married 12 days earlier losing his life.

The latter sporadically tweets photos and videos of the blast whilst rather insensitively waxing lyrical about the installation of the world’s largest round building and the ‘stunning performance’ of its tanks at the Army Games 2015 in Russia.

On the other hand, we switch on BBC news and see the burnt out cars, bodybags, buildings on fire, debris raining from the sky and trucks lying prostrate on their backs having being thrown like blocks of Jenga into the air.

The first rule of social media is that you must engage.

Just like traditional media of newspapers, radio and TV, you have to be part of the conversation to influence it.

If you fail to do that, all that happens is that others speculate on the truth – and others begin to build their own version of reality.

2. Do it yourself

social media training courses scotland wooden logos.

It amazes me how much faith organisations put in social media agencies, without properly briefing them in advance.

I once worked with a recycling organisation that spent tens of thousands of pounds every year paying an agency to tweet facts about recycling.

The tweets were loaded into a social media calendar at the start of every year, barely debated, and then scheduled.

The result? Zero engagement.

Social media engagement needs to take the form of conversations. At least 75% of your activity should be in sharing other’s content, starting debates and asking your customers questions.

social media training courses scotland thumb on smartphone.

Now of course, all of that takes time.

But remember, although you may be unfamiliar with how social media operates, you are the expert on your subject.

MasterCard earlier this year found out the pitfalls of using public relations (PR) agencies for its social media accounts.

London-based PR Agency Dawbell, one of the PR agencies used by MasterCard, decided it would invite a number of journalists to the MasterCard-sponsored Brit Awards in February 2015.

Unfortunately, it decided to lay down some conditions of entry.

Those conditions included specific tweets that the invited journalists would have to send out, including the following:

“Really excited to be heading down to @BRITAwards tonight with @MasterCardUK #PricelessSurprises”

The request was part of a #PricelessSurprises campaign, with the paid-for promoted hashtag intended to boost the profile of MasterCard at the event.

The problem, however, was that one of the journalists, Tim Walker, took umbrage to the ‘ridiculous’ demands and decided to post them on his own website.

As a result, social media went into overdrive.

The #PricelessSurprises hashtag promoted by MasterCard now began to trend with sarcastic comments and criticisms of the ‘bribery’ on show.

social media training courses scotland MasterCard.

The second rule of social media is that you must retain control of your brand.

If you are going to employ an agency, make sure they are properly briefed and know your business inside out.

Even better, have an expert within your business learn how social media operates.


  • You can respond quickly to unfolding events
  • You can create a fast feedback loop for customers getting in touch
  • You can show off the best of what you do, knowing your key messages inside out

Your content is now relevant, engaging and shows commitment to your social media followers.

Find out how we can help you with that  on one of our social media courses here.

3. Find your voice

social media training courses scotland three people using smartphones.

On top of every rule you apply to social media, you must lay your brand’s tone of voice.

Is your brand corporate? Is it cheeky? It is aspirational?

Only by knowing what your tone of voice is can you begin to use social media effectively – and start speaking with the same voice as you would when face-to-face with your customers.

Consider introducing yourself to a stranger at a party by saying:

“We’re doing a 25% sale on our entire range of products. Hi I’m John, by the way”.

It would be ridiculous.

Instead, you listen, tell stories and build commonality.

It should be the same when you speak to your customers.

Your website and your sales team deliver the hard sell.

Social media, on the other hand, needs to be about advocacy – the soft sell.

In August 2014, Greggs the Bakery gained social media plaudits for the way it dealt with a rather unfortunate Google error.

When Google users searched for Greggs, they were met with the ironic tagline “Greggs – serving s**t to scum for 70 years”.

When users found this out and starting tweeting @GreggsOfficial to let them know, the business stayed calm, urged Google to fix the problem and found its tone of voice with its customers.

social media training courses scotland donuts greggs.

It even started its own hashtag, #FixGreggs, and responded to concerned on-lookers with very human reactions.

One tweet, responding to positive remarks about its crisis-handling, responded:

“Crisis? What crisis? *eats doughnut*

It was a fantastic example of turning a negative into a positive even in the most difficult of circumstances.

A great example of tone of voice comes from email marketing site MailChimp, which allows its customers to send a large number of emails to a targeted list of customers.

Early on, MailChimp spoke to its customers about how they felt during the process of creating, designing, writing and sending an email campaign to a large number of clients.

They identified the emotions of the creator of the email right the way through the process and decided to visualise that on the screen.

Before sending your carefully-crafted email out to your list of loyal customers, MailChimp now shows the sweating, shaking arm of a chimp hovering over a red button.

It reads:

‘Prepare for launch’.

Once that button is pushed and the email scheduled, it shows this:

social media training courses scotland MailChimp rockon.

The brand immediately connects to the customer’s emotions – fear, anticipation, pride and relief.

The first time I used this I must admit, I found it an odd representation of a brand.

Yet now, I eagerly await the appearance of the ‘Rock On’ sign or the arm raised in the air urging you to ‘High Five!’ the screen.

When we run crisis management and emergency exercises in Glasgow, Edinburgh or around the UK, we simulate social media activity to see how the Emergency Team responds to oil spills, freak industrial accidents or deaths within the company.

Every time, we find the best response comes from those who have worked out their tone of voice and key messages before the operation begins.

And that’s the third rule: work out your tone of voice in advance of a disaster scenario unfolding.

That way, when disaster strikes, your team is ready for it.

So there you have it, three simple rules for making the most of social media:

  1. Get involved – and avoid a Chinese-style vacuum
  2. Do it yourself – and avoid a #PricelessSurprise
  3. Find your tone of voice – and prepare for launch

You can find out more about our social media courses here.

Andrew McFarlan is a director of social media training and communications firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can view his full profile here.

Photo credit: @yakobusan Jakob Montrasio 孟亚柯 / Foter / CC BY; Book Worm Laser & Design / Foter / CC BY; udithawix / Foter / CC BY-NC; miss karen / Foter / CC BY





14th August 2015 Featured in: Blog, Social media training blogs By:

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