Friday, December 30, 2011

Learning from Verizon's Experience: 5 Lessons for School Leaders About Social Media

Verizon’s decision to not charge customers a $2 convenience fee is a lesson about power of social media, for all of us, including 21st century school leaders.(See MSNBC’s Article “Verizon Drops $2 Convenience Fee.”) As authors Randy Beal and Judy Strauss write in Radically Transparent: Managing and Monitoring Reputations Online, “The Internet provides a megaphone for the disgruntled---with no entry barrier, little legal accountability, instant commentary, full multimedia communication, and a free distribution channel to millions worldwide.” Verizon heard that megaphone and decided to let customers know they were listening.

When Verizon decided to announce a $2 fee, they ran right into thousands of consumers yelling loudly through the power of social media. As a Verizon customer, I even joined in a bit myself. Ultimately though, Verizon did what is probably the smartest thing they could do. They issued a statement that said, “At Verizon, we take great care to listen to our customers. Based on their input, we believe the best path forward is to encourage customers to take advantage of the best and most efficient options, eliminating the need to institute a fee at this time.” That is probably a textbook answer and response to a crowd empowered by social media. The company did not continue to try to defend the fee. They immediately acknowledged a change in course. That alone demonstrates one important principle described by authors Beal and Strauss, and that is: Your customers have to feel like you are listening to them. By announcing their plans to not charge a fee they clearly demonstrate their willingness to listen. Verizon should gain more positives from this response than any 2 dollar fee would ever give them.

The whole Verizon incident illustrates perfectly what Beal and Strauss say in Radically Transparent about the 21st century medium, “Social media are like word-of-mouth on steroids.” Businesses have known for a long time the power of plain word of mouth. Schools and their leaders would do well to pay attention to this power too.

Besides some great lessons for those studying the power of social media and marketing though, there are lessons for 21st century school leaders from the Verizon Incident too.
  • There is a conversation online about you or your school/district and you may not know it is even happening. Beal and Strauss advocate for taking steps to listen to this conversation. In a previous post, (The Oft-Ignored 21st Century Leadership for School Leaders), I offered some suggestions on how to do that. Yet, too many school leaders, from the district level to the school level, are still ignoring social media and considering it a fad. They spend too much time finding ways to limit access to it and dismissing its impact, when they should embrace and accept it as a fact of life. The bottom line to this one is simple: ignore that online conversation to the peril of your school and perhaps yourself.
  • Even though there is a conversation about you or your school/district online, you can’t control its direction. Too many school leaders and policymakers still think they can control the direction of this online conversation. They create all manner of rules and laws trying to keep the conversation at a minimum. They even try lawsuits when something is said that is objectionable. Ultimately, neither rules, policy, nor lawsuits are going to stop that conversation. Instead, 21st century school leaders need to learn how to respond effectively to social media. They need to fight fire with fire so to speak.
  • You cannot control that conversation; the best you can hope for is to effectively respond to it. What does an effective response to a less-than-flattering social media posting look like? Well, those using social media don't like spin. They don't like attempts to hide behind the law or authority. The best way to respond is perhaps to open up and be what Beal and Strauss call "being radically transparent." That means being honest with people and not looking like you are still trying to hide something. That means being as honest as possible and avoiding "educationalese" or jargon. 
  • Be careful of your response to that conversation. As Beal and Strauss point out, “The Internet community comes down hard on those who employ conversation spin, control, manipulation, or spam.” Should we find ourselves in a "Verizon-like-situation," a careful, well-thought-out response is a must. Social media has created a “no-spin zone” of sorts where spin is at your own risk. Taking time to plan a response is a must. There is no room for knee-jerk answers.
  • As Beal and Strauss emphasize repeatedly in their book, “Be radically transparent or risk your reputation and top line.” This means using plain language, being sincere, and being candid. No generic marketing messages allowed. Welcome responses and feedback. As school leaders you have to work hard to build relationships with your community through social media, and that means being transparent.
Recently quite a few people and organizations have run headlong into the power of social media. Besides this event with Verizon, Bank of America found out firsthand the power of social media when it proposed additional fees on its customers. Then there was Lowes and its decision to pull ads from the Muslim American reality show. They also found out about the "steroid-effect" of online communication.Finally, ask Governor Brownback of Kansas, his staff,  and the poor principal who tried to force student Emma Sullivan to write that letter of apology. In every single one of these instances, an organizational or personal reputation was on the line.The one thing in common is how the organization or individual responded and resulting effect on their reputation. Social media is here to stay, and school leaders who learn to effectively use it will be more successful communicators to their stakeholders and they may perhaps head a reputation crisis too.


  1. You got that right. I am surprised such a large company doesn't survey its clients through social media before launching some ridiculous $2 fee. It was only going to anger customers, which it did. Thanks for the post.


  2. You're welcome. Verizon could have saved themselves a great deal of agony had they engaged in some kind of exchange with their customers first. Reputation is everything and online is where it's happening. Thank you for the comment.

  3. Another great example of this was when Netflix announced their decision to increase the charge for their services and split the DVD service and streaming service to create Qwickster and Netflix. People took to social media and renounced this decision as well. Although Netflix did stick with its decision to price hike their services they cancelled Qwickster. I still believe they are suffering overall because of the increase in price.

  4. Thanks for the additional example. Netflix did not handle the social media fallout too well either during that crisis. I remember reading many and scathing post about their company. It will perhaps take years for them to recover completely. Many customers have long memories and will remember this for quite some time. Thanks for sharing.