Taming The Tyranny of Social Media

After a World Economic Forum meeting in Vienna I was at dinner with a number of senior executives of well known European companies this week when the subject of social media was raised as a discussion point. The WEF was wondering how companies use social media and what was their attitude to it?

As the majority of senior execs tend to be 40+ the were few active Facebook or Twitter users around the table However many of their companies now have mandatory social media training, which seems to mainly involve making employees aware that they shouldn’t use it to criticise the company as they may be monitored and subsequenty fired! Most organisations also have strict rules on who is allowed to Tweet. But the disconnect between large companies and social media seemed almost as pronounced as in the governments affected by the ‘Arab Spring’ – while they are aware of its existence, nobody quite knows how ornwhat to use it for. Some of us will recall simlilar remarks being made about the PC and the Inernet.

The biggest fear among corporations is of damage to their reputation, as a slur with no factual basis may spread through social media and influence public perception. In some cases, all people may know about a particular industry can come from social media in the form of a viral video produced by someone with an axe to grind.

So what should the response be, to live with it or to be more proactive? For a large number of companies there is a growing pressure to use social media even though the end result may be just shouting into the wind. What can a large chemical company, or in fact any other B2B company tweet about? They already have channels of comunication to their customers in the form of web sites, mailing lists and catalogues, so the benefits of tweeting are less clear. But the number of investors and board members asking what the company’s social media strategy is has led to a plethora of company twitter accounts broadcasting nothing but bland corporate speak.

All of this perhaps misses the point of social media, where the key element is people not organisations. The most followed social media users have always been individuals, whether Belle du Jour or @2020science, and as any journalist will testify, it’s the human angle that makes a story interesting.

Real CEOs don’t tweet (although some have a corporate communications person to do it on their behalf) simply because it is too risky. An ill guarded comment after too much Moutai or Wuliangye at a Chinese banquet might get an employee fired, but if it came from a senior executive it could wipe millions off a company’s value (and get them fired).

The big opportunity for social media isn’t in pumping out bland corporate statements, its biggest effect will be inside corporations, allowing discussions around the water cooler to be expanded to include relevant people across the whole organisation, tapping existing knowledge and reducing duplication of effort. The beauty of social media compared with other collaborative platforms from Lotus Notes through Microsoft Sharepoint to Dropbox is the lack of user intervention required. Social media platforms push information rather than relying on users to remember to check for the updated information.

As a tool for collaboration, whether company wide or in the academic world, we are at the beginning of a shift just as profound as that caused by the World Wide Web. But with all new platforms, it takes a few years of use and misuse before the really useful applications emerge that companies can really make use of to improve competitiveness.

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