Why Your Company Sucks at Social Media, Digital Marketing, and PR

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 digital marketing and public relations 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.

The internet has forever changed how organizations compete and individuals communicate with customers and stakeholders. It has dealt paralyzing blows to the media and entertainment industries, rendering much of what they do redundant and their distribution models obsolete and reshaping almost every industry where middlemen profit from inefficiency. Social media literacy levels outside of external communications remain primarily anemic.  And you can't effectively leverage emerging media if you don't know what it is or how it works.

Yet despite all this disruption, few digital marketing coaching opportunities exist for top-level decision-makers and others outside of marketing and PR.  Social media is a no-brainer for communicators.  But the opportunities and threats are not always clear for the rest of the organization.  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.

Holistic Social Media Training Model

The evidence is everywhere.  Outside the business world, social media serves as a rallying point for North Africa and the Middle East protesters 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 also effectively shutting down commerce.  For regimes that need or want to respond to the aspirations of their people, openness becomes an economic and political necessity.

But despite 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 often provokes fierce resistance.  Most people still have little first-hand experience operating in this new environment and lack the skills to evaluate social media's effectiveness.

According to a recent report by Marketing Profs and Junta 42, organizations with low executive buy-in for social media also tend 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 bullhorn. 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 valid, practical guidance on how to use these channels responsibly for business because the top level decision-makers are largely illiterate about the valuable applications of social media for business?  As I see it, the real challenge is not teaching the external communications department to Tweet authentically, but overcoming social media illiteracy.

Having led Social Media Boot Camp training seminars worldwide 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 translate that vision into realistic strategies, I fear the true promise of social media will remain just out of reach.

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