Be authentic, be accurate, and be forgiving

What the big challenge is for a social media producer operating in a field of expertise and what leaders have to do to support them

A well-known brand issued a tweet yesterday celebrating the 88th birthday of John Williams, conflating the lives of both a film composer and a guitarist into one glittering career.

Oops. The classical music world identified the error, some leading on ridicule, others following up close behind with empathy and forgiveness.

The tweet was deleted soon after, but the screengrab lives on.

I work in this field – (digital) content – and have done for 13 years. In that time I’ve been at the wheel during a couple of accidents: I’ve been responsible for prematurely announcing the death of a celebrity on a BBC account (it later turned out that my source – the celebrity’s wife – wasn’t a reliable one given that she was a dementia sufferer). This only came to light because it emerged the exclusive for the announcement had been given to a tabloid newspaper and the editor there was a little disappointed to discover a verbal agreement had apparently been reneged on.

And I’ve also tweeted a link on a different BBC account to my own blog believing it was directing users to a press announcement about job losses. It took the then the Head of the BBC Academy to point out the error to me.

Both of these experiences saw me experience inordinate amounts of shame to the extent that I was convinced everybody around me knew of my error and it wouldn’t take long before I was frogmarched out of the door. (That never happened, obviously.)

The John Williams tweet reminds me of those experiences and the effect they had on me as a creative. Powerful creativity comes from a place of trust. In return for trust those who delegate content creation to others rightly expect accuracy in addition to spirit, energy, and hopefully engagement. When that trust (external or internal) is damaged then confidence is given a knocking. Self-doubt creeps in. Content suffers.

Accuracy is vitally important in the classical music world. Different endeavours seem to reach out to different audience groups with differing levels of knowledge or expertise. Accuracy may not be a requirement for the target audience but it is vital for those who could endorse your product, especially if those same people (even if they’re not in that target group) could berate you in the event you get it wrong. The reality is that we’re all self-publishers. That means we’re accountable to considerably more people who have an opinion.

The JW tweet highlights a greater challenge for any content producer in the classical music world however. Knowledge, expertise and experience is of course important. Being able to articulate that in a way that connects with your target audience using a language that honours the experts at the same time as promoting curiosity and ongoing discovery is phenomenally challenging for the individual with knowledge. Being aware of what you know at the same time as knowing what your audience doesn’t know is the biggest demand placed on a social media producer. And rightly so.

There is another aspect to this which triggers the leadership coaching part of my brain: that of empathy and forgiveness. Somewhere someone who thought they’d done a good thing on Friday now thinks they’ve messed up. They think that probably because of the replies they’ve seen. Their weekend has been ruined because of a mistake. Nobody seeks to make that kind of error, but sometimes they happen.

What I always wanted in those situations was for someone in authority to seek me out face to face and check in with me. I wanted people to feel able to say, “This wasn’t great, and we know you know that, but we want you to know that it’s OK and you’re still very much valued. We’ll do better to support you in future.”

It takes a strong leader confident in their own skin to be able to say that, I know. Only two have been able. Those that don’t, can’t or won’t unwittingly reveal far more about themselves than perhaps they would like. I’ve always strived to say it to others. Done well and it can be transformative. It ensures trust is maintained and most importantly of all ensures creative aspirations aren’t extinguished.

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