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Social Media Forum

Tone-deafness—It's not just a musical malady

Comments on social media travel faster and farther—Avoid the traps

By Tom Wetzel

All of us have observed social media missteps in the last several months that would give anyone pause. There is no question that social media is a powerful communication tool that can lead to greater brand awareness and more leads. It should be just as obvious, however, that there is an absolute necessity to understand how one's posts and tweets will be interpreted. Tone-deafness is not an option. The good news is that there are time-tested ways that agents use right now to avoid making such mistakes.

Exhibit 1. The recent spectacle of the Carnival Triumph cruise ship. The ship was adrift for five days with little food, broken sewage systems and no heat or air conditioning. After the ship reached port and its passengers were able to disembark, the company sent out a note via Twitter: "Of course, the bathrobes for the Carnival Triumph are complimentary."

Exhibit 2. After Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast late last year, Allstate aired a TV commercial with a photo of the wrecked home of a policyholder, whose claim was in a heated dispute over the wind vs. water issue. The company's settlement offer for the home the older couple had lived in for 40 years and which was now a pile of rubble would not begin to pay for a rebuild. News coverage was swift and brutal. Aside from the merits of the case, the story could have been avoided had the company used a photo from a claim not in dispute.

Exhibit 3: Progressive Insurance endured an Internet firestorm last year involving a claim in which a policyholder was killed. In a subsequent trial to establish fault, the victim's brother blogged that Progressive argued for the other driver. The merits of the case notwithstanding, the company's actions were not explained well throughout the process and its robot social media postings only exacerbated the controversy.

Finally, let me share a hypothetical example of my own, the details of which I have observed all too often.

Three tornados move through your community but only one touches down, damaging five homes and flattening a sixth. A blogger asks about the extent of damage in the community.

The agent replies. "We were lucky."

The answer may seem reasonable enough. But what if you were the policyholder whose house was just flattened? How would you feel? And more important, how would others reading that post feel about your sensitivity, fairly or unfairly?

Consider the following as an alternative posting following the tornado: "Every loss is a tragedy. Thank goodness we did not have more in this storm and no lives were lost. And we have already started work on helping to rebuild the homes that were damaged or lost."

The fact is, statements sent out via social media travel faster and farther and last forever, so it's prudent to think a bit before posting. That's the advice from agents who already use social media effectively.

Ryan Hanley of the Albany, New York-based Murray Group Insurance Services, says his primary rule when creating content is to ask himself two questions before he posts a single word: "First, I want to know the expected response from what I write. Second, how will I react when I receive a response? I need to understand the value the reader will take away from my words, not the value I want to project. That's a mindset change and all of us in the industry have to take heed."

Donna Hosfeld of Hosfeld Insurance in Macungie, Pennsylvania, says: "It's a process of being hyper-clear about my meaning and then hyper-vigilant about responding to a comment." Donna posts several times a day and she realizes there will be times when her words are misconstrued. "If someone takes a post the wrong way, I make it a point to quickly respond to them, which often times defuses any hostility."

Jason Cass of JDC Insurance Group of Centralia, Illinois is reminded of the old rule that "if you don't want something you said on the front page of the newspaper, don't say it. Our industry is afraid of criticism, but it's how you respond to that criticism that's critical."

To be positive is one of the rules Chris Paradiso of Paradiso Insurance of Stafford, Connecticut, always follows, no matter what form or tone the criticism takes. Chris sends out numerous posts and tweets every day. "When I write a post, I read it three or four times and then share it with three or four others in the office to make sure it says what I mean. I also never, ever ignore a negative comment. That doesn't mean I am not cautious when someone registers a complaint on a social media site. But I will always pick up the phone and reach out to the critic directly to find out the root cause of their complaint. I may not solve the problem online, but very often if I'm able to address the issue to their satisfaction they will repost a compliment or at least an appreciation of what I was able to do."

A little humanity also goes a long way. Agents perform many small acts of kindness but often don't get credit.

In December last year, an emergency room doctor wrote a letter to the husband of a patient whom he had treated and who later died. Another family member read the letter and was so touched that he posted it online. More than two million people have already viewed the letter, with thousands leaving comments. The letter can easily be found online. For agents, the point of the letter is this: The more of ourselves we can project, the more powerful our brand becomes.

Consistent, honest, give-and-take communications with consumers is not just a tactic. It should be a habit. With a consistent, careful review process, agents can avoid the social media pitfalls and let their personalities shine through—the very qualities that contribute to their success.

The author

Tom Wetzel is president of a full-service, insurance-exclusive marketing communications/public affairs firm with a special practice devoted to social media for agents. He can be reached at The company's website is He is also on Facebook and Twitter and a blog at

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