Monday, May 18, 2009

Does the corporate approach to social media make sense?

I attended the Ragan Social Media UnConference and Brainstorming Summit May 8 in Chicago, which I haven’t yet blogged about (but you may want to check out these recaps from Rachel Esterline and Al Krueger for more on that).

An idea that was raised at the UnConference -- and that nearly prompted me to shout “Amen” -- was the notion that companies/organizations should be calling upon their social media-savvy employees (the younger ones, in many cases ... but certainly not all cases) to be the ones to take the lead on engaging the company in social media initiatives; training other employees how to use various social media tools; and attending conferences to learn more about business-oriented strategies for using the technologies with which they’re already familiar, as well as those about which they have yet to learn.

I agree completely. And think about it: Who hasn’t worked in an organization in which people are being sent to workshops to learn how to do “task X” or a new position is created to manage “task X” when there’s already someone in the organization who understands the finer points of said task and would be great at handling it as part of his or her duties, even if it meant perhaps shuffling around a few responsibilities to others in the organization to balance out the workload?

Some of the conversation at the UnConference also focused on the development of “social media policies” for employees, both in terms of how they use social media on the company’s behalf and how they use social media on their own. (For the curious, IBM and Intel were cited as specific examples of best practices in social media policy, and there are plenty of other social media policy examples on the NewPRWiki as well).

Since the last organization I worked for did not have a social media policy -- and the organization I worked for before that didn’t really need one, since social media had not yet become very pervasive -- I wasn’t terribly familiar with such policies, although the idea, in general, made sense to me. However, upon reflection, I realized that I had kind of had my own “social media policy” all along; I just referred to it as “common sense,” but, apparently, I am the exception and not the rule, which is why more and more organizations are developing formalized policies regarding social media use.

At any rate, this perspective ended up coming in handy when I had a conversation the other day with someone whose organization is in the process of developing a social media policy. However, it sounded to me like the policy was being developed by people who don’t use and/or really understand social media.

Wait, what?!?

People who don’t really understand the ins and outs of social media tools and, in fact, call upon their younger employees who are social media-savvy to explain things to them and others in the organization are creating a policy by which the people who actually understand the technology must abide? How does this make sense?

The answer: It doesn’t!

Just as the C-suite and managers should be tapping the existing skills and expertise of their employees who know these technologies and tools and calling upon them to be organizational champions for social media, they also should be consulting these individuals when developing social media policies.

Think about it this way: I know how to drive an automatic-transmission car (and I have a clean driving record, FYI). Does that mean I should be creating traffic laws? Writing users’ manuals for manual-transmission cars? Driving 18-wheelers? Of course not!

Developing social media policies in a vacuum makes no sense. How can the policy be effective if you haven’t consulted the people to whom it will actually apply? And I’m not saying the consultation should be of the “do you think this is fair?” variety; that would basically be letting the inmates run the asylum, as the old saying goes.

Rather, what I’m suggesting is a consultation that involves talking to the social media users to find out what tools and technologies they are using; how they are using them; what concerns they have about how they should be managing their own online presence, as well as the organization’s (if they’re being called upon to do so); if they have suggestions for potential policy items; etc. This single conversation could likely produce details regarding almost everything that should be included in an organization’s social media policy, including many things that the C-suite and managers perhaps did not even know about or understand.

And don’t you think the buy-in from existing employees would be much more likely if they feel like the policy’s creation was a collaborative process rather than executives quietly making a bunch of rules about something they don’t understand and then passing out a policy that does not really address relevant issues or, even worse, creates more confusion than it does clarity? (Then there’s the whole “approval from legal” issue -- another recurring theme at the UnConference -- but I’m not even going to touch that here ...).

The same sentiment applies to the creation of social media plans and strategies. Why not engage your social media “experts” in that process, since they’ll know the subtle tips, tricks and shortcuts to make your social media communication plans even more timely, relevant and effective ... plus, they’re the ones who will probably ending up executing the plans, so why not give them that sense of ownership?

While I’m very much a team player and pride myself on lacking that sense of entitlement that younger workers (hmm ... not even sure I qualify for that category anymore!) are so often accused of having, I am always frustrated when people who don’t necessarily understand my clients, my responsibilities, the politics of my clients’ situations, etc. laying out plans without my input and saying, “Here’s what you need to do and when you need to do it,” not realizing that the plan is completely impractical (which I could have told them if they’d consulted me before writing a plan in stone and committing to it).

For me, nothing illustrated this better than when I sat down at my computer yesterday to watch last week’s episode of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” which had somehow failed to record on my DVR.

In once scene, Tom Scavo returned home from a job interview, distraught that he had “become irrelevant.” He explained to his wife, Lynnette, that he got stumped in the interview by a question about “whether (he’d) used ‘Twittering’ as part of a marketing campaign.” While I was put off enough by that inaccurate reference -- since we all know the line should have been “Twitter” or “tweeting” -- the continuation of the dialogue was somewhat painful to watch. Clearly, it was not written by someone who uses -- or even fully understands -- Twitter.

Similarly, last week’s episode of TBS’s “My Boys” focused entirely on Facebook. While the references actually were all accurate, the problem with the episode is that it was terribly outdated, in my opinion. I remarked to someone that it was about 18 months too late. And I bet there is someone on the staff of that show who, if consulted, would have said, “Shouldn’t we be focusing this episode on Twitter instead? Or at least talking about more current Facebook-related topics (the new, never-ending stream of LivingSocial quizzes, perhaps? Or even the relatively recent ‘25 things about me’ flood? Terms of service controversy, anyone?)?”

And to be honest, these nails-on-a-chalkboard moments of social media on TV were what really spurred this blog entry: The notion of, “How can someone who doesn’t really get this stuff be the one who gets to write about it?!?” was just too overwhelming to let the opportunity pass without some comments, especially since the fictional, televised faux pas only served to reinforce the larger issue: Organizations are missing the social media boat by not consulting -- and subsequently empowering -- their potential social media champions and capitalizing on their knowledge and ideas to ensure relevance, timeliness and the all-important buy-in.

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  1. Amen to your Amen. Corporations love diversity when staffing, and here's a great chance to execute on that. I believe that younger workers should definitely be a part of it as well as older workers. There should also be representatives from ALL functions of the organization with different levels of experience.

  2. Very good post - nice insight. It is important for companies to leverage talent they have in-house who use social media to help develop these plans. Otherwise, it will be ineffective and constricting...