The myth of message control.

Control.  It’s a myth.  Many times when we humans think that we have control, something happens to expose the myth.  Rivers flood wide swaths of land in spite of the construction of mighty levees.  Unsinkable ships (Titanic anyone?) crack open on maiden voyages.  Closely held secrets of politicians, CEO’s, and celebrities are proclaimed in bold headlines.  Even loyal pets occasionally bite the hands that feed them.

It is, and always has been, impossible to maintain total control of our messages, especially in today’s social media environment.  This point is reinforced by Joel Postman in his book SocialCorp Social Media Goes Corporate, where he described companies trying to control their brands.  Postman wrote, “It’s unlikely that at any time in history companies were truly able to control their brands.  However, with each successive generation of communications tools, the idea that a company owns its brand exclusively has grown increasingly harder to support” (page 78).   Whether it’s corporate, political, or personal, much of the communications process remains outside our control.  Sure, we all have some level of influence and input to the process, but certainly not control.

So, should we shrug our shoulders and give up?  Not in the least.  The new social media tools bring immense opportunity.  For the first time on a broad scale, we can communicate more personally and interactively with larger groups of people.  Yet, we must recognize the dangers.  The biggest danger is being caught engaging in unethical activity or in a breach of integrity.  (Aren’t those the hallmarks of so many political operatives?)  In this regard, Postman makes another vital point.  He wrote, “New media does not require a new morality.  Most of us know right from wrong, and just because a company is using a blog or an online forum doesn’t release it from its responsibility for ethical behavior” (page 115).

Lesson to all of us, and especially to our political [ahem] leaders:  let’s be ethical.  The good ol’ internet and all its social media tools make it increasingly difficult to hide ethical lapses and illegal activity.  You better let go of the idea that you can control, or even strongly influence what your constituents think of you.  Instead you better be prepared to interact with your followers, and do so ethically.  I know, I know… it’s a concept foreign to many in the world of politics.

Do you remember Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back?  (Yes, I know that I’m a geek.  Feel free to snicker.)   In his oddly gravelly/nasally voice Yoda said, “Control, control, you must learn control!”  Sorry Yoda, when it comes to communications the advice should be, “Ethical interaction, ethical interaction, you must learn ethical interaction with your audiences!”  (That sound you just heard is most likely George Lucas banging his head on his desk.)  It may be great communications advice, especially within this social media age, but it’s a terrible line for a movie.

What do you think?  (See… that’s the interaction part!)

Leave a comment


  1. springtimesoul

     /  May 30, 2010

    Mom’s advice: don’t do anything you wouldn’t want to see in tomorrow’s headlines.

    • Good advice. It’s also good to ask yourself what would Mom or Grandma think about this post/comment/etc. (Especially since both Mom and Grandma read my blog!)

  2. If there is a single “most important” quote in my book (as far as I am concerned), Wade, it is the one you mentioned on new media and morality. You would be shocked (or maybe not) by the number of people I talk to who are only interested in whether a particular marketing tactic is legal, and not whether it is ethical. Thanks for continuing to raise awareness on the most important issue.

    • Joel… thanks for the comment! Your quote jumped off the page at me. I had to go dig out my highlighter. I’ll admit that I’m not surprised. The whole focus on legality rather than ethics is common in just about every industry/job. Too common. Especially in politics.


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