The social conundrum

SocialMediaI must confess I am not surprised that in 2015 we are still debating the suitability of social media for business, although I am disappointed, just as I was back in October of 2011, September of 2010, November of 2009 and July of 2009, about the slowness of the uptake, and the conservative approach, by businesses.

Social media can be chaotic. No doubt the unpredictability of the medium and the ‘any teenager can, and does, do it’ mindset underlies the ongoing struggle for acceptance as a respectable business tool. The multitude of well publicised mistakes made by organisations when they do engage with the medium are also unlikely to be helpful.

‘Let’s do social media,’ said someone, ‘everyone else is doing it!’ So, a random employee who put their hand up, or someone from your executive, human relations, marketing, media or public relations team, often without appropriate social media experience or expertise, started a Facebook Page or a Google+ profile, an Instagram or Twitter account or set up a blog to communicate marketing messages to your clients and customers. Your organisation may even invested in an expensive piece of technology to facilitate enterprise social networking.

A year or two later you have a bunch of fake followers, limited client or customer engagement and there is minimal, if any, internal social engagement by your employees. What happened?!

… putting your interns on your Twitter account because ‘they’ know social media, is not strategic social media engagement …

External social media

Most likely you misunderstood social media and put jumping on the bandwagon before preparation and planning, and technology before people and culture; never a wise move. Chances are that you are also failing to utilise all the relevant, necessary and appropriately scaled technologies for your social media success.

Many organisations fail to do their homework, do not research the medium properly and do not have a formal strategic plan for their social media engagement:

I would dare say, don’t do social media if you can’t be bothered to do it properly, but, admittedly, that approach is also filled with reputational dangers because you can be certain that even if you are not on social media your clients and customers are, and chances are that they are talking about you. You are just not party to that conversation …

It is undeniable now that the social economy is here and in this new global landscape social companies and firms will be leading the charge. But, you can’t join just by jumping on the bandwagon or throwing money at it. It will take a little more than that.

First, you need to understand what social media is. Social media is not a marketing or public relations tool. Social media is a conversation. Social media is collaboration. Social media is about genuine engagement. Social media is about being ‘social’. Generally, social media works best and it is most effective when there is an authentic engagement between the participants.

‘Authenticity’ is the key to successful social media engagement, however, authenticity is not something you can manufacture overnight. Authenticity must come from deep inside your organisation’s culture and if you don’t have it, you will need to put strategies in place to develop it.

… you need to know exactly what your goals are and prepare and implement a strategic social media plan to achieve those goals …

Of course you can use social media for your traditional marketing and public relations messages, but you may be disappointed (or even shocked) by the results if you treat social media as if it was an old-world, one-way marketing and public relations communications channel.

Your business may not even be well suited to utilise social media externally, or you may find that there are very specific social media channels that work better for you than others, depending on what you wish to achieve. Just as your business has a marketing, product, promotional and public relations mix, you will also need to develop the appropriate social media mix.

Social media, although still somewhat fluid and evolving, is no different from any other aspect of your business: you need to know exactly what your goals are and prepare and implement a strategic social media plan to achieve those goals, including:

  • setting clear objectives;
  • analysing existing capabilities;
  • developing a content strategy;
  • developing relevant policies (i.e. privacy, security, content review and moderation processes);
  • identifying required resources, including personnel, relevant social media platforms and analytical tools to monitor and manage performance; and
  • implementing a responsive and speedy feedback loop to adjust your strategy as needed.

One of the biggest reoccurring practical issues, despite the quite obviously descriptive name ‘social’ media, is that organisations often appear to be surprised and caught out by the fact that clients and customers will respond to social media communications and very publicly so, for everyone to see … and they won’t always have a public relations team on hand to polish their commentary or any kind of filter between brain and keyboard or screen. Such communications can often be raw; angry, spiteful, racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate, in more ways than one could ever imagine.

Therefore, if you decide to have a social media presence, devoting appropriate resourcing and applying a well-developed policy to moderating comments by your clients and customers is a significant issue both from a legal and reputational perspective.

You bought the technology, you deployed it, you trained everyone to use it and then you sat back an waited for it to revolutionise your organisation, only to realise that hardly anyone is using it.

Enterprise social networking

In the meantime, while you are grappling with your external social media, you may also be wondering whatever had happened to your lofty dreams of internal, enterprise social networking by your employees, collaborating and exchanging ideas and thus making your organisation more efficient, innovative and productive?

You bought the technology, you deployed it, you trained everyone to use it and then you sat back an waited for it to revolutionise your organisation, only to realise that hardly anyone is using it. Not even your millennials, who you thought would lead the charge in adopting a technology that’s second nature to them.

Becoming a ‘social business’ is not that easy; you will also need a social culture and social leadership.

As far back as November of 2009 Forbes thought your leader should be out there, participating in social media. Almost five years later we are still talking about what it means to be a ‘social leader’ but in reality little has progressed. Perhaps the impetus wasn’t quite there or perhaps most leaders are asleep at the wheel when it comes to the social business model.

There has always been a significant social and power distance between most business leaders and captains of industry and the public and employees. Social media would no doubt erode this distance and that’s unlikely to be a welcome change by some. It will be interesting to see whether the entry of social media giant Facebook into the enterprise social networking market with Facebook at Work (FaW) will have an effect on business leaders’ attitude towards the medium. We can also all predict already FaW opening up a familiar can of worms for organisations around client and customer confidentiality and data security.

Enterprise social networking is a slightly different beast from social media as we know it. Enterprise social networking takes social and focuses it on communication, collaboration and interaction between employees with the goal of improved innovation, efficiency and productivity. Enterprise social networking is about the flow of information; it’s about removing barriers, hierarchy and the power structure from internal communications. There is strong empirical evidence emerging showing that enterprise social networking, when done well, can drive collaboration and productivity: study conducted by Forrester Research.

If you want to embrace the social business it’s highly likely you will have to tear down quite a few internal cultural walls at your organisation.

Employees, including millennials, will usually conform to an organisation’s cultural norms to ‘fit in’. Especially so in environments with strong status hierarchy and reverence to both perceived and real status seated in seniority, such as professional services firms, where young professionals will adjust their conduct to conform with that hierarchy. Every organisation has a few ‘rebels’ who do provide a counterpoint to the prevailing culture, but they usually cannot change it.

Consequently, your millennials maybe using social media happily in their private lives, however this will not transfer into social networking within your organisation if the prevailing organisational culture does not truly support social engagement. Your millennials will take their signals from your organisation, and in particular its leaders and senior players, as they hold the ‘power’ within the hierarchy in which they operate. If those leaders and senior operatives don’t engage with social media and networking, neither will your employees, including your millennials.

Enterprise social will become particularly important for professional services firms where the intellectual output of employees is the capital of the firm. ‘Socialising’ the knowledge of employees is becoming a quintessential requirement for agility and success in new global markets and you cannot socialise knowledge without establishing a social culture and actively engaging in enterprise social networking.

‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’

Any traditional organisation which hopes to become truly ‘social’ will likely to have a lot of work to do to create a social culture, especially professional services firms with strong status hierarchies and partnerships where a lot of focus is placed on individual achievements for career progression.

Professional services firms, in addition to their status hierarchy, also have a tendency to attract the brightest of the bright which can incubate a culture of incredibly high expectations, which may not be conducive to asking questions, learning from, let alone making, mistakes or engaging in open conversations – the polar opposite of a truly social culture.

For such organisations to embrace social culture and social media, some significant barriers will have to be destroyed. In fact this scenario reminds me of that famous Ronald Reagan quote: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’

If you want to embrace the social business it’s highly likely you will have to tear down quite a few internal cultural walls at your organisation. And if you are unwilling or can’t do that, you might as well save your money on fancy enterprise social networking technologies.


  1. Greg Rohan

    IMO a big problem for companies trying to embrace social media is that they are just not set-up for the fast changing environment that they are operating in today. Decision making processes are too slow and they are poor at innovating so it leaves them on the back foot and they will always be responding to the market rather than leading it.

    Some are also just stupid when it comes to managing their social media programs. How many times have we seen a company in the news because of an employee sending a tweet from the company account instead of their own after a few drinks? A good starting point for your social media policy is not allowing employees to access the company account from their phone!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen Sander

      Greg, I think you raise a really interesting and practical point by noting employee access to company social media accounts from personal mobile devices.

      Although, it seems to me that there is a bit of a catch-22 situation here given the need to monitor corporate social media 24/7. One solution that comes to mind is to give your social media team separate work only mobile devices and restrict access to corporate social media accounts to those devices …


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