Why Does Social Media Interaction Lead Us To Protect an Organization’s Reputation?

by cv harquail on December 2, 2009

200912021714.jpgI have been struggling to write a (scholarly) book chapter on Corporate Reputation, social media and authenticity. As I have been writing myself around and around the issue(s), there is one thing that I cannot get my finger on, and that is:

Why does having interacted with an organization through social media make us feel more partial towards that organization?

Why are we more likely to like and even to defend an organization, once we have interacted online with that organization’s representative?

I’ve been playing with ideas about social presence, about scripted vs. context-specific interaction, about individual connections vs. ‘corporate’ ones, but I know that I haven’t found the psychological mechanism(s) yet.

It could be that I’m looking in the wrong places (e.g., CMI (computer mediated interaction) vs. social psychology’s Contact Hypothesis), or that I don’t have the right language, or maybe that the research has not actually been conducted.

But I do know that the phenomenon is real.

For example, earlier this week Robbin Phillips wrote a lovely post, Keeping Promises, at the BrainsOnFire blog, where she describes how her connection with Scott Monty leads her to protect Ford’s reputation.

Something about “knowing” someone at Ford has made me a sincere fan. I’ve even found myself defending them on occasion, in one on one conversations and even to large groups. I have just grown – well — fond of them.

Robbin attributes her feelings about “Ford” as an organization to her feelings about @ScottMonty as a person… recognizing that Ford has managed to “humanize the brand” by using a very personable person and skilled communicator and natural Zen-PR guy) to represent them.

While I do think that Robbin’s reaction is unique to her and her connection with Scott, I also think that there is something more general and more common in the phenomenon…

Could it be that:

  1. The person-to-representative connection just like the connection between touching an object and creating a preference for it? (1)
  2. Ford has shown something about itself as an organization by choosing Scott as a particular/specific person? (org identity reflected in choice)
  3. Ford has shown something about itself as an organization by ‘allowing’ the social media folks (like Scott and his team) the freedom to interact as they see fit? (org identity reflected in process choice)
  4. People transfer to Ford the qualities of what they feel about Scott (simple attribute transfer)?
    As Colby Gergen says “I trust Ford because they are associated with Scott, not the other way around.
    ” Is it that social media give us a person first, rather than a ‘corporation’, making it easier to transfer feelings about a person to the organization than it otherwise would be to transfer feelings about an organization to a person?

200912021715.jpgI’ve seen a lot of words bandied about that describe this phenomenon, but not any proposed ‘mechanisms’—

I’d love your thoughts on what makes us like and maybe even defend organizations once we have interacted with their representatives online… What do you think explains this?

(1) Wolf, Arkes & Muhanna (2008) The power of touch: An examination of the effect of duration of physical contact on the valuation of objects. Judgment and Decision Making, 3 (6): 476-482.

Gentle Touch by cindy47452 on Flickr
Touch Me by jjjohn
on Flickr


Graeme Martin December 8, 2009 at 10:35 am

I’m not so sure that the medium has much to do with the relationship – perhaps just having contact and willingness of someone representing the organizations begins to send out ‘honest’ signals – signalling theory, which is what I’m playing with just now. I suspect attribution theory might also be helpful in suggesting how individuals take on the ‘work’ of the organization. Not sure if this is of any help.

Ann Mosher December 8, 2009 at 2:24 pm

I may not have the right lingo (and perhaps not the concepts, either!) as I have not studied these theories, but I am going to jump in here anyway as someone with communications experience who is working with my organization on how to “deal with” social media and stakeholder groups.

Could it be that the phenomenon you describe is as simple as people wanting to “join” and be one of the cool kids? You feel a part of something when you comment on a company’s website. There is a sense of having shifted from observer to a slightly different role; maybe not a full-on ‘participant’ yet, but after you go public you feel somehow set apart from those huddled masses who merely read a website and don’t “get involved” by commenting or conversing.

Once you take that small risk, you are more personally vested in the success of that organization/company than you were before you hit the send button, because you have put a little bit of your own reputation at stake by “going public” in your comments.

There is a role here, too, for ego and self-identity. If you see yourself as someone who sticks up for their friends, then you are more likely to hear any criticisms of your friends differently than if you think of yourself as an independent boot-strapper type, instead of one who values loyalty.

cv December 9, 2009 at 10:22 am

Ann, I think you’re on to something, highlighting the ideas of personal investment, and public commitment. There is some research that suggests that we entwine our identities with the identities of interaction partners, and you remind me to go look at that, too. thanks!

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