The Wire is unarguably the greatest television show ever produced. It has been described as Dickensian by many and I agree. It is the most nuanced, complete, uncompromising, and honest portrayal of an American city that has ever invaded our televisions. David Simon addresses the urban experience in Baltimore with a deft wit and poignant observation reminiscent of Dickens' social criticism of Victorian-era England. You would need a college class, and there have been many, to even begin to discuss the many social impacts of The Wire. This article does not attempt to do that.
This is just a social media article, and that's not a bad thing. It could be any article. Lessons for building cars from The Wire, or tips on how to sell widgets from The Wire. Nearly every moment of the Baltimore drama lends itself to advice. There are lessons to be learned from both the characters on the show as well the men and women who created it. Without further ado, let's get into it.
Have a Plan
One of the most impressive things about The Wire is that the show never seemed to suffer from any type of viewer fatigue, its cult status only growing into and after its final fifth season. The reason for this is that David Simon mapped out the entire blueprint of the show in advance. Every season had a set theme that spoke to the entire overall story that was being told. In an interview with the New York Times, he said, "We were always planning to move further and further out, to build a whole city."
Season one started as an introduction to the police and criminals that would be matching wits in the Baltimore drama. Season two built upon that foundation, expanding to include the Baltimore port and the role that the shipping industry plays in the city's drug culture. Season three highlighted how Baltimore politics influences everything that happens on both sides of the law, while season four shone a light on those most impacted, the city's children and their schools. Appropriately, season five ended squarely focused on The Baltimore Sun, a final look through the eyes of the journalists who cover it all.
The lesson here is that any business entering the social media landscape should have a long term plan of what it wants to accomplish and how it's going to do it. Knowing which social networks are best suited to highlight company strengths, as well as the networks where your customers reside can be the difference in whether your business achieves social media success or not. For hints on how to do that, check out this post from The Next Web, which breaks down the strengths and weaknesses of the major social networks you'll come across.
Being authentic is something that countless social media strategists have advised, and that's because authenticity drives the social experience. It also drove The Wire. There's a reason this show felt real. Show runners David Simon and Ed Burns were a former Baltimore police officer and a former Baltimore Sun reporter respectively, and nearly every single character group incorporated actors plucked right out of the local community. Characters like Slim Charles, played by local GoGo performer Anwan Glover, and Ed Norris, a homicide detective on the show and former Baltimore Police Commissioner in real life, brought authenticity that came across on screen.
In the same interview referenced above, David Simon says "I'm the kind of person who, when I'm writing, cares above all about whether the people I'm writing about will recognize themselves. I'm not thinking about the general reader. My greatest fear is that the people in the world I'm writing about will read it and say, 'Nah, there's nothing there.' "
Your social media accounts are the public face and voice of your company. If you're not running them, whoever is should be as passionate and knowledgeable about your company as you are. You don't want your customers to visit company social channels and feel that there's nothing there.
Toward the end of the first season, Detective Kima Greggs is laying in a hospital bed, having just been shot in an undercover drug deal gone wrong. Although physical evidence goes a long way to implicating those who are responsible, her positive identification of the shooters would really put the case over the top. Kima is able to identify one of her attackers, but not the other. Despite the urging of her fellow detective, she is unwilling to finger the second attacker, choosing honestly over ease. In explaining this decision, she says "sometimes things just gotta play hard."
This is a valuable lesson for brands on social media. It's not all happy days when you choose to engage your users online, but it's important to always remember to be honest in your interactions. If something goes wrong and a customer calls you on it online, explain exactly what happened and do what you can to fix the situation. But don't make excuses, don't avoid answering, and certainly don't get into a back and forth, that will ultimately make your business look petty to observers. Sometimes you just have to let an angry customer have the last word. Or as Kima says, "sometimes things just gotta play hard."
To the great displeasure of Herc and Carver, a pair of police officers on the Wire, high level investigation involves a lot of waiting and grunt work. A consistent theme through each season is the presence of police officers on surveillance duty, just waiting for the moment that makes it all worth it. You can't force an investigation. Fans of the show will certainly remember when Herc and Carver took Pryzbylewski to conduct nighttime "field interviews." Let's just say that it didn't end well.
You can't force social media either. Don't try to go viral or rejigger your plan of action every few days. Good social media takes time. It doesn't happen in a day, a week, or even months sometimes. That's why any business signing up for a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, or a Facebook page needs to have a game plan. You don't want to fall victim to your unrealistic expectations and timelines. If you need guidance, in this Entrepreneur post Zach Cutler offers some nice tips to build a long-term social following.
In many ways, consistency is the culmination of the previously described lessons. As Omar Little famously said, "A man gotta have a code." Oh Omar, that's why we love you. This shotgun toting, drug-dealer robbing, man with a code was the unabashed hero of The Wire. Omar lived his life by a credo, one that he followed all the way to the end.
Businesses should also have a code. Know who you are and what your business stands for. Make sure this voice and mission is consistent across all social media channels. Be uniform about your social schedule. If possible, post on networks daily and check on customer interactions consistently throughout the day. Don't come and go as you please, being super-active for a few days before going silent for a month. This kind of chaotic approach will only confuse the customers you're hoping to help. If your social followers know you're available on a regular schedule, they will be more likely to interact with or recommend your business through these channels. There's nothing worse than tagging a business or asking a question only to find that they are dormant on your social network of choice.
So there it is. Five social media lessons from The Wire. If you take these lessons to heart, your social followers will certainly notice and you'll be well on your way to building as loyal an audience as David Simon did with his show. Can you balance the high wire act?
Image Credit: Randy