Unlocking the true potential of social media for business relies on increasing social media literacy levels enterprise wide. As long as we treat emerging media as a marketing and PR opportunity, we will fail to realize the true promise of many-to-many communications. In addition to teaching the mechanics of social media, we need to inspire leadership about the potential of social media, or I predict we’ll see more opportunities and revolutions pass us by.
Social media has forever changed the way organizations compete and the way individuals communicate. It has dealt paralyzing blows to the media and entertainment industries, rendering much of what they do redundant and their distribution models obsolete, and reshaped almost every industry where middlemen profit from inefficiency. Social media literacy levels outside of external communications remain largely anemic. And you can’t effective leverage emerging media if you don’t know what it is, or how it works.
Yet despite all this disruption, few social media training opportunities exist for top-level decision makers, and others outside of marketing and PR. Social media is a no brainer for communicators. But for the rest of the organization, the opportunities and threats are not always so clear. Truly arriving at a place where everyone in the organization appreciates the value of shifting from a “need to know” to a “need to share” mindset will require a holistic approach to retraining the workplace.
The evidence is everywhere. Outside the world of business, social media is serving as a rallying point for protesters throughout North Africa and the Middle East who are frustrated by sclerotic leadership, inequality, abusive government and high unemployment. Protesters are using social media to accelerate the pace of change, and regimes that respond by strangling the internet are effectively shutting down commerce as well. For regimes that need or want to respond to the aspirations of their people, openness becomes an economic and political necessity.
But in spite of all the evidence, many businesses and government agencies are still struggling to adapt. To be fair, coming up to speed is no small order. It involves instituting change throughout the organization, which is often provokes fierce resistance. Most people still have relatively little first hand experience operating in this new environment, and lack the skills to evaluate social media’s effectiveness.
According to recent report by Marketing Profs and Junta 42, organizations with low executive buy-in for social media also find it to be less effective than organizations where executives do buy-in. Misunderstandings at the top result in unrealistic expectations and misguided strategies. Social media is much more than a bigger bull horn. Authentic outbound engagement is not enough. We should be working to ignite self-sustaining communities, rather than just unleashing the marketing department on Twitter. Social media is a rallying point for organizing movements, not just a parking lot for content marketers.
But how do you empower everyone to participate in a movement if you block access to Facebook.com, restrict employees from discussing business-related matters online and provide no useful, practical guidance on how to use these channels responsibly for business because the top level decision makers are largely illiterate about the useful applications of social media for business? The real challenge, as I see it, is not teaching the external communications department to Tweet authentically, but overcoming social media illiteracy.
Having led Social Media Boot Camp training seminars all over the world for professionals of different disciplines with very diverse priorities, I can tell you that they all need different information to understand how social media applies to their corner of the organization. In my experience developing social media policies for clients, I can also say that the most labor intensive task is never drafting the policy, but educating diverse stakeholders from different departments. If they don’t understand the basics, policies are gutted of useful information, access to social media inevitably gets choked off, and the company’s reputation undoubtedly get determined by an online conversation in which they don’t participate. The net result is they effectively wind up sacrificing their credibility in exchange for the illusion of control.
But right now, it’s still the external communicators who are being trained to use social media. Until we start offering leadership and management the interdisciplinary social media training they need to understand how these emerging channels impact their vision, and how to realistically translate that vision into realistic strategies, I fear the true promise of social media will remain just out of reach.
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