If you are old (like me), then you might be doing certain things the way you always have, without realizing that times have changed. The old ways don't necessarily continue to work. All this was brought to mind when I read a recent story about how State Farm Insurance followed the old procedures, which didn't work out for them when they were handling a case of a dog tragically killed by a car.

Dog dog

Image via Wikipedia

As the story goes, Canadian law holds a pet owner responsible for damage caused by the pet, so State Farm sent the pet owners a bill for $1700 to cover the damage to the car that struck and killed their dog.

At a certain level, this makes sense. After all, anytime someone is at fault in an accident, the insurance company needs to make them pay. Failing to do so raises everyone's insurance rates. But in this situation, the public relations damage of a heartless insurance company going after the dog's grief-stricken owners seemed right out of central casting. And social media message boards and bloggers soon jumped in, and State Farm is there. But not looking like a good neighbor.

If you're feeling a bit smug as you read this, wipe that look off your face. State Farm has a generally positive image inside and outside social media. Many insurance companies would have done the exact same thing, and many other businesses have policies in place that employees adhere to without considering the extenuating circumstances. Maybe yours does, too.

So this isn't a story about State Farm. It's a story about you. Do your employees know how to operate in public? It's likely that the poor claims adjusters whose quick decision started this imbroglio didn't even consider that they are working in the public eye. I am confident that they didn't consider what people would think. They were just following procedures and sending a private letter to someone.

We all need to remember that everything we do in the age of social media can be publicized without our permission, and that the reaction to what we do forms a new kind of pressure of public opinion that none of us are accustomed to.

Some small business owners have told me that they are too small for anyone to make a stink over what they do, but that's just whistling past the graveyard. True, your public relations mess wouldn't get picked up by the New York Times, but does that matter? Social media makes it easy for your customers to hear all about it, even if mainstream media never mentions it.

No matter how large or small your business, your employees need to understand that everything they do now is in public, whether they want it to be or not. Every seemingly private communication can become public at any moment. Do you want your employees shackled to a set of procedures in those situations, or do you want them deputized to act in the best interests of the company? Or do you at least want them to think about the public relations implications of their actions and ask for advice before blindly acting in accordance with procedure?

Your public relations day in hell is coming if you don't.

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July 12, 2010

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.

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