Horse meat keeps turning up in European food products. Though the vast majority of brands tested most recently by the UK government came up clean, meat from Taco Bell and Bird’s Eye got flagged. This comes after major equine revelations about Burger King’s cheeseburgers and Ikea’s meatballs.

Such reports are like manna from Heaven for social media — they’re topical, easy to understand, and kinda disgusting — so there’s been a lot written about how the affected businesses have managed the crises online, or should have done so.

But that’s like crediting sneezes as the causes of head colds. Social media are simply a vector by which information is shared, and digital platforms are only one of them. So no amount of chatter monitoring or reassuring tweets from PR people addresses the underlying facts. The virus is the truth, and it’s going to get out no matter how expertly companies handle a portion of its revelation.

In fact, the horse meat scandals — just like the unsafe or unfair labor practices that have preceded them — are proof that your supply chain is at least as interesting to your stakeholders as your latest, miraculously brilliant marketing campaign. Maybe more so. And that’s just one operational touchpoint for generating social buzz.

There’s a lot that every CMO should learn from these recent events:

Social is not about engagement. It’s 2013, and still the vast majority of social media campaigns are inane one-way stunts intended to get consumers to spend time with invented topics — called “content” to make it sound serious — in the assumption that they 1) have lots of time to spare, 2) would like to have it wasted, however pleasantly, and that 3) this has anything to do with promoting credibility, sales, and loyalty. TV’s mass market audiences are gone, so brands use social tech as another broadcast media, teeing-up faux participation, like likes or votes, that usually has something to do with the marketing content itself (i.e. textbook circular logic).

Engagement with this stuff elevates medium over message, providing empty communications calories in lieu of nutritional information. Yet the content that has the greatest currency online comes from reality. Events. Tidbits of real info. Personal experiences. Stuff that matters to people and doesn’t necessarily require them to spend vast amounts of time enduring it. Knowing is enough, because they’ll quite possibly use that content when making some future comment or decision. Social success isn’t measured by customers remembering ad creative. It’s about them retaining useful stuff.

P2P is about people, not brands. That’s what technologists originally meant when they devised ways for people to connect with other people and called it peer-to-peer. The early social tools (like the W.E.L.L. and email from services like CompuServe and Prodigy) made no provisions for brands to use them as broadcast media. P2P platforms defined places were brands were distinctly absent, actually. It’s no surprise that what people did there was an extension of what people do everywhere in the real world: talk about what they know. The very premise that anybody goes online to interact with brands — well, with marketers and their minions talking on behalf of their employers — is fundamentally flawed.

I think that’s why there’s so much written about how important it is for brands to build trust and credibility online…and it’s why businesses are failing so miserably at it. The recent Edelman Trust Barometer of global sentiment toward businesses is that a measly 18% of people believe what companies say (Edelman informally titled the summary report “The Trust Deficit”). Brand loyalty is down, as is willingness to pay premium pricing, and there’s emergent research that suggests willingness to recommend brands online actually declines with the increases in consumer use of social media services (and has no relation to whether brands spend money on them or not).

Nobody really wants or needs to talk to brands. They talk about them.

Reputation isn’t a marketing campaign. Social technologies make it easy for people to learn about the strengths and foibles of the most distant or obscure supply chain or other operational truths of any business. They’ll learn about imperfections in production, impacts on the environment, treatment of workers and vendors, not to mention discover the realities of whatever it is you promise your products or services will deliver. I’d wager that these are the truths about businesses that register with consumers (and other stakeholder groups), and that they retain them over time.

Awareness of what companies do versus what they say is how corporate reputations are constructed in the 21st century. That means the best content companies can throw onto social media platforms is factual, authentic, and useful. Think of it as OEM information supplies for the “finished products” of opinion and reputation that stakeholders will build.

So back to horse meat. Have Burger King or any of the other tainted brands told us why we should trust them? How were the supply chain violations allowed in the first place? Has every process been checked and, again, why should anybody believe that they’re any more secure now than they were a few months ago? Are there new standards in place? What about the next problem or revelation? No brand is invincible to the vagaries of global sourcing, so what steps are these businesses taking to inform us of these risks while simultaneously reassuring us that they’re trustworthy?

Addressing such issues is certainly a communications challenge, but the real strategic focus needs to be on doing real stuff first. Little to no reputational value comes from smart marketing. Yet these recent events suggest that the situation is being handled by the companies’ messengers. I fear they’ve hired more social media staff in prep for the next crisis. So long after the social firestorms have faded away, the unanswered questions about the affected brands will lurk, subtly influencing stakeholder decisions as they await evident reactivation by the next crisis (or temper enthusiasm for a positive news bit).

Businesses need to get a better handle on the reality that underlies their messages, because social media are more interested in your supply chain than how you brand it. You should be, too.

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