One of the most interesting discussions in public relations circles these days involves social media channels like Twitter and Facebook. The question is, who should be representing your brand? Are your tweets more authentic if they come from a person or from an organization? What is more effective, a Twitter handle that uses the name of the company or the name of an individual who works for the company? Can whoever speaks for the brand, actually be the brand?

In social media, authenticity is crucial. To be followed, you must be credible. To be friended, you must not be phony. On the other hand, many brands are using Twitter to provide quick, responsive customer service that they can't provide through a call center that reeks of "let us put you on hold until tomorrow because we don't really care about your whining."

Pete Codella is a social media strategist based in Salt Lake City. He says that just like companies raced to reserve their dot-com name, they should do the same to protect their brand on the various social media platforms. They can keep those URLs as placeholders or use them as active channels. Pete also says that in social media it's the people and personality that really shine.

"We're naturally accustomed to interacting with other people and not with big entities, so a brand is more effectively represented by its people than by the brand alone," says Codella.

There is also the issue of who owns your social media content, the employee or the company? What happens to all the company's followers, fans or friends if the employee leaves the company? But we will save that topic for another blog.

The bottom line is that both approaches are necessary. The brand should have its own channel, which may be most useful for customer service, contests and incentive programs, or directing online traffic to important news and announcements. Individual employees can serve as the brand's ambassadors while using their own channels to support the company's mission.

Ultimately, social media is a way for brands to build awareness and loyalty by connecting the brand with people who share the same passion or promise. Brand ambassadors play a critical role in evangelizing the brand through their own social networks.

Like other areas of PR, social media works best when it is part of an overall strategic communications program. And like any communications program, the best way to start is by asking, "What is the problem and what do we want to accomplish?" The answer to those two questions will determine the answers to all the questions that follow.

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