Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is Your Company Brave Enough to Own Up to Its Orange Vests?

It can sometimes feel as if I've heard every social media success story there is to tell, but occasionally a great and surprising tale is shared that has an instructive moral. Such was the case last week when I met with Major General Kevin Bergner, USAA's Chief Administrative Officer. Prior to joining USAA, Kevin was the Chief of Public Affairs for the Army, and it is there he gained experience in the value of transparency in social media.

In May 2009 The Daily Beast ran a story, entitled "Suicidal Soldiers." It revealed that some soldiers put on suicide watch were made to wear orange vests. The purpose of the vest, according to the article, was to make it easy for others to keep an eye on a suicidal soldier. But, the vest was said to carry a stigma--"In a sea of green, you can't miss it."

As Kevin recounted this story to a roomful of peers, we thought, no way! The idea that the Army would have such a policy is absurd; clearly the story must have been erroneous.

That's what the Army's leaders thought, as well, but given the seriousness of the issue, they also were not willing to dismiss it and undertook the time to investigate before crafting a response to the Daily Beast. With more than half a million personnel spanning the globe, no serious report--no matter how unbelievable--could be discounted. And, as I'm sure you surmised, the Army found a base where, with the best of intentions, soldiers identified to be at risk of suicide were made to wear bright orange vests.

The Daily Beast was correct, the situation was embarrassing, and the comments being posted to the blog were harsh. Many organizations would have quietly made a change and waited for the attention to die down, as it always does. But it's not the Army's way to shirk responsibility, even in the bright glare of social media.

General Pete Chiarelli, the vice chief of staff, wrote a public reply to the Daily Beast article in which he thanked the author for bringing the situation to the Army's attention. "We are committed to caring for our Soldiers and their Families, and her article has helped us do better." By dealing with the issue head on, the Army earned praise for its openness and willingness to change.

You might be surprised to learn that the US Army has a robust, detailed and open policy on social media (a copy of which is embedded below). In it, the "orange vest" episode is referenced: "By personally commenting on the blog, Gen. Chiarelli changed the narrative."

In recent years, we've seen many wonderful examples of companies that earned praise and trust for admitting mistakes. For example, Domino's Pizza acknowledged their pizza needed improvement and earned back customers, and the Red Cross fessed up when an employee accidentally posted a personal tweet to the organization's account, sparking a wave of new donations.

Those organizations owned up, but many others get caught evading or making half apologies. The power of an honest mea culpa is something we all recognize in our personal relationships, so why does it seem so difficult for organizations to embrace humility? If your company was caught with orange vests, would it be willing to follow the US Army's lead?

Army Social Media Handbook 2011
View more documents from U.S. Army

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