Social Media Isn’t Always the Answer

December 23, 2008

Social Media

As one of Booz Allen’s social media leads, I’m thrilled to see more and more of my government clients starting to ask questions about social media and if/how it might help them.  I love logging into Twitter and seeing so many different conversations centered around Government 2.0.  I love thinking about the potential that social media has in fundamentally changing the way our government operates.  I also love telling my clients that they’re not ready for social media.

Let me explain.

I’ve seen Intellipedia, TSA’s Evolution of Security blog, DoDLive, the DoD’s Blogger’s Roundtable, FEMA’s YouTube channel, GovLoop, and many other examples of “Government 2.0.”  I’ve also seen plenty of failed blogs, dormant wikis, and other failed attempts at using social media.  The reasons for failed social media range from the obvious (ghostwriting a blog and not allowing comments) to the not so obvious (middle managers not allowing wiki contributions without first getting them approved).  However, these are simply symptoms of a larger issue at work.

Here’s the thing – unless your organization is ready for transparency and authenticity, and has instilled a culture of sharing, you’re going to have a lot of trouble successfully spreading social media.  This is where I often tell my clients to take a step back from the tools of social media and focus more on the processes of social media.  I compare this type of thinking to a football team that goes out and drafts really talented receivers, but stick them into an offense that’s focused on running the ball.  The receivers (social media) end up failing not necessarily because they’re bad, they end up failing because they were placed into an offense (the organizational culture) that wasn’t optimized for them.

You see, social media isn’t about the technology – it’s about what the technology enables.  And even if your organization is ready for the tools, it may very well not be ready for what those tools will bring.  Before diving into the world of social media, take a step back and see if your organizational culture and internal processes will support what social media will enable.

  1. Are employees discouraged from contacting people outside of their chain of command?
  2. Are employees discouraged from challenging authority?
  3. Is risk-taking rewarded or punished?
  4. Are employees rewarded for collaborating with other colleagues or for authoring/producing original work?
  5. Do your employees have regular access to the Intranet?
  6. Does your leadership value the feedback of employees?
  7. Are employees prohibited from speaking externally without prior permission?
  8. Is the contribution and sharing of intellectual capital part of the employees’ regular routine?
  9. What’s more valued, entrepreneurship or following orders?
  10. Do employees derive more value from networking with colleagues or from using the Intranet?

Asking these (and there are many more – this is just a sampling) questions will help your organization (offense) be prepared for what social media (receivers) will enable.

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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

View all posts by sradick
  • Yes! I cannot agree with you more. There is often too much focus on the tools rather than what the tools enable, and organisational readiness is absolutely key to success. I come from an L&D perspective with social media so it’s probably a little different from you, but something I often find myself referring to when discussing my work with others is Gilly Salmon’s five stage model, which discusses the stages of getting people involved.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Yes! I cannot agree with you more. There is often too much focus on the tools rather than what the tools enable, and organisational readiness is absolutely key to success. I come from an L&D perspective with social media so it’s probably a little different from you, but something I often find myself referring to when discussing my work with others is Gilly Salmon’s five stage model, which discusses the stages of getting people involved.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Fantastic post! Echoes very strongly some thoughts several of us in gov’t have been exchanging over the past weeks.

  • Fantastic post! Echoes very strongly some thoughts several of us in gov’t have been exchanging over the past weeks.

  • Katherine Tobin

    Great post, but then the next question is what the organizations who “fail” the quiz above should do– stick with the status quo? Change their culture? Are some tools or collaborative techniques better suited to serve as “baby steps” to coax more traditional organizations into the culture of collaboration? For example, I think a wiki related to a non-controversial, internal matter (e.g. list of each team’s contact info on company intranet) would give people a taste of collaboration and encourage other small steps. But you raise a good point, Steve– even if the leadership wants to hop on the social media bandwagon, their orgs aren’t ready. We just need to figure out how to help them get there.

  • Katherine Tobin

    Great post, but then the next question is what the organizations who “fail” the quiz above should do– stick with the status quo? Change their culture? Are some tools or collaborative techniques better suited to serve as “baby steps” to coax more traditional organizations into the culture of collaboration? For example, I think a wiki related to a non-controversial, internal matter (e.g. list of each team’s contact info on company intranet) would give people a taste of collaboration and encourage other small steps. But you raise a good point, Steve– even if the leadership wants to hop on the social media bandwagon, their orgs aren’t ready. We just need to figure out how to help them get there.

  • Hey Steve, this is a very important issue for government communicators and I couldn’t agree more. Folks tend to think that everyone has to have a Facebook or a Twitter page to exist and that federal agencies are competing to be the first to be the ones who did something. We have been working on FEMA’s social media forays for a while and a few very important things were necessary to address from the start: What is the objective of using these tools; who is the audience; and who will manage the workflow for customer service.

    We are actively using YouTube and Twitter to provide education, transparency, mythbusting and customer service where we can. Our mission is complex and oft misunderstood. FEMA response and recovery activities are partnerships with state, local, tribal, other federal agencies and NGOs. And we need to communicate as such through all available channels. This can be complex, although sometimes better achieved through social media.

    Government doesn’t tend to be agile and government communications can be rather complex for the instant nature of social media. But this shouldn’t preclude agencies from getting involved so long as they think out those 10 items you listed.

    One of the more interesting developments I have noticed is the benefit for strengthening partnerships with our state and local counterparts through social media. Another important issue you raise (to paraphrase you) is that social media is not about technology but what it enables. Keeping an eye to content rather than technological gimmicks is crucial to developing a sound agency presence and being part of a community, as opposed to another press release outlet.

    Thanks for the post,
    John

  • Hey Steve, this is a very important issue for government communicators and I couldn’t agree more. Folks tend to think that everyone has to have a Facebook or a Twitter page to exist and that federal agencies are competing to be the first to be the ones who did something. We have been working on FEMA’s social media forays for a while and a few very important things were necessary to address from the start: What is the objective of using these tools; who is the audience; and who will manage the workflow for customer service.

    We are actively using YouTube and Twitter to provide education, transparency, mythbusting and customer service where we can. Our mission is complex and oft misunderstood. FEMA response and recovery activities are partnerships with state, local, tribal, other federal agencies and NGOs. And we need to communicate as such through all available channels. This can be complex, although sometimes better achieved through social media.

    Government doesn’t tend to be agile and government communications can be rather complex for the instant nature of social media. But this shouldn’t preclude agencies from getting involved so long as they think out those 10 items you listed.

    One of the more interesting developments I have noticed is the benefit for strengthening partnerships with our state and local counterparts through social media. Another important issue you raise (to paraphrase you) is that social media is not about technology but what it enables. Keeping an eye to content rather than technological gimmicks is crucial to developing a sound agency presence and being part of a community, as opposed to another press release outlet.

    Thanks for the post,
    John

  • Excellent post. I agree with the assessment, but not necessarily with the conclusions.

    You can, in some circumstances, promote social media and social networking in expansive culture/process/change terms. This was once a common practice among many private sector evangelists. It may still be appropriate in situations where openness and transparency are the norm.

    In less receptive markets, you can still promote social media and social networking, but you may have to do so by treating them as tools and by focusing on more traditional software justification practices — the “more/better/faster” justifications, in other words.

    At the end of the day, collaboration technologies, social media, and social networking are just tools. They can be used to support change, or they can be used to support the status quo. Ultimately it’s the process changes they provoke or support that drive their adoption.

    Dennis McDonald, Ph.D.
    Alexandria, Virginia
    Web: http://www.ddmcd.com
    Twitter: @ddmcd

  • Excellent post. I agree with the assessment, but not necessarily with the conclusions.

    You can, in some circumstances, promote social media and social networking in expansive culture/process/change terms. This was once a common practice among many private sector evangelists. It may still be appropriate in situations where openness and transparency are the norm.

    In less receptive markets, you can still promote social media and social networking, but you may have to do so by treating them as tools and by focusing on more traditional software justification practices — the “more/better/faster” justifications, in other words.

    At the end of the day, collaboration technologies, social media, and social networking are just tools. They can be used to support change, or they can be used to support the status quo. Ultimately it’s the process changes they provoke or support that drive their adoption.

    Dennis McDonald, Ph.D.
    Alexandria, Virginia
    Web: http://www.ddmcd.com
    Twitter: @ddmcd

  • Adam Roades

    Steve, your argument is dead-on and your questions are good ones to ask (they remind me of the one’s Sean D. and Don B. bring up from the sabotage manual). The tools are simply an expression of the a collaborative culture and mind-state.

    Katherine, I think the answer to your question is: struggle and die. Organizations that persist in “old school” thinking and are incapable of adaptation will simply wither and die. They won’t be able to compete with others who are nimbly communicating and collaborating internally (with Enterprise 2.0 tools) and with their customers (using Web 2.0 tools).

  • Adam Roades

    Steve, your argument is dead-on and your questions are good ones to ask (they remind me of the one’s Sean D. and Don B. bring up from the sabotage manual). The tools are simply an expression of the a collaborative culture and mind-state.

    Katherine, I think the answer to your question is: struggle and die. Organizations that persist in “old school” thinking and are incapable of adaptation will simply wither and die. They won’t be able to compete with others who are nimbly communicating and collaborating internally (with Enterprise 2.0 tools) and with their customers (using Web 2.0 tools).

  • After asking the above questions, the alternative isn’t necessarily the status quo – I think the best course of action would be to explore why you answered the way you did. What circumstances exist to create the answers to the questions? Take a look at the broader culture and processes of your organization first. I would never suggest just ruling out social media, just like I would never suggest that social media is always the answer. These are just indicators that will help you understand what type of social media you’re most ready for.

    As for your baby steps questions, absolutely. But again, it’s dependent on the organization. See my previous post on “Learn to Walk Before You Run” (http://steveradick.com/2008/11/02/learn-to-walk-before-you-run/) for more on that.

  • After asking the above questions, the alternative isn’t necessarily the status quo – I think the best course of action would be to explore why you answered the way you did. What circumstances exist to create the answers to the questions? Take a look at the broader culture and processes of your organization first. I would never suggest just ruling out social media, just like I would never suggest that social media is always the answer. These are just indicators that will help you understand what type of social media you’re most ready for.

    As for your baby steps questions, absolutely. But again, it’s dependent on the organization. See my previous post on “Learn to Walk Before You Run” (http://steveradick.com/2008/11/02/learn-to-walk-before-you-run/) for more on that.

  • John, I think you bring up a good point – educating, mythbusting, and providing customer service can and should be done via multiple channels, not just social media ones. We (the government) should try to instill this authenticity on Twitter, on blogs, and on websites, but also in press releases, press conferences, and town hall meetings. Social media makes this easier, but it shouldn’t be dependent on the tools. The overall communications strategies of government should include more frank conversations and less shouting of key messages.

  • John, I think you bring up a good point – educating, mythbusting, and providing customer service can and should be done via multiple channels, not just social media ones. We (the government) should try to instill this authenticity on Twitter, on blogs, and on websites, but also in press releases, press conferences, and town hall meetings. Social media makes this easier, but it shouldn’t be dependent on the tools. The overall communications strategies of government should include more frank conversations and less shouting of key messages.

  • I love that manual – so very true, and so very sad!

  • I love that manual – so very true, and so very sad!

  • Dennis, I agree with you that these are just tools, but unless an organization is ready for the cultural changes that these tools bring about, they will never realize the benefits that they can bring, and may actually cause more damage than good. It’s one thing to launch an internal leadership blog – it’s another to actually have an internal leadership blog that actually helps accomplish their communications goals. Take a look at my previous post – http://steveradick.com/2008/11/02/learn-to-walk-before-you-run/, you’ll see some of the same points that you mention here.

  • Dennis, I agree with you that these are just tools, but unless an organization is ready for the cultural changes that these tools bring about, they will never realize the benefits that they can bring, and may actually cause more damage than good. It’s one thing to launch an internal leadership blog – it’s another to actually have an internal leadership blog that actually helps accomplish their communications goals. Take a look at my previous post – http://steveradick.com/2008/11/02/learn-to-walk-before-you-run/, you’ll see some of the same points that you mention here.

  • I have to agree — using the wrong tools or using tools wrongly can be counterproductive.

    The point I was trying to make was that you don’t have to push for wide-scale culture change to promote adoption of tools that make processes more efficient through the sharing of information. That will depend on the process of course, but not everyone is threatened by more openness and transparency. A lot of people will jump at using tools that make their jobs easier or more productive. Such benefits don’t have to be limited to white collar or senior management level applications.

  • I have to agree — using the wrong tools or using tools wrongly can be counterproductive.

    The point I was trying to make was that you don’t have to push for wide-scale culture change to promote adoption of tools that make processes more efficient through the sharing of information. That will depend on the process of course, but not everyone is threatened by more openness and transparency. A lot of people will jump at using tools that make their jobs easier or more productive. Such benefits don’t have to be limited to white collar or senior management level applications.

  • Great post and points. I think your point is true whether it’s a government client or not. To further, social media are just tools and a means to an end. Sometimes, I think it’s easy to say, “Let’s create a MySpace page or a blog,” and think smaller instead of backing up and thinking bigger picture–sometimes it’s not that person’s or organization’s fault because they have to create that cultural shift step by step. Social media isn’t a cure-all. I think you get that, and so thank you for this post, and reminding us about the bigger picture. Happy Holidays!

  • Great post and points. I think your point is true whether it’s a government client or not. To further, social media are just tools and a means to an end. Sometimes, I think it’s easy to say, “Let’s create a MySpace page or a blog,” and think smaller instead of backing up and thinking bigger picture–sometimes it’s not that person’s or organization’s fault because they have to create that cultural shift step by step. Social media isn’t a cure-all. I think you get that, and so thank you for this post, and reminding us about the bigger picture. Happy Holidays!

  • I agree completely: there seems to be a sense of urgency around social media, that organizations NEED to get into this space. Yet as you state, it’s not just about the use of particular tools. There needs also to be a fundamental culture shift within an organization.

    I think the reason why integrating social media into organizations is so difficult is because it focuses on the individual (I generally differentiate between the “personal” and the “professional” appications of social media). In your list above, your points focus on the behaviours of individuals as dictated by the organization. Unless these two sides are in alignment, there is always going to be tension, and “doing social media” is NOT going to be beneficial.

  • I agree completely: there seems to be a sense of urgency around social media, that organizations NEED to get into this space. Yet as you state, it’s not just about the use of particular tools. There needs also to be a fundamental culture shift within an organization.

    I think the reason why integrating social media into organizations is so difficult is because it focuses on the individual (I generally differentiate between the “personal” and the “professional” appications of social media). In your list above, your points focus on the behaviours of individuals as dictated by the organization. Unless these two sides are in alignment, there is always going to be tension, and “doing social media” is NOT going to be beneficial.

  • Don’t get me wrong – I do think that public-facing organizations NEED to get in this space. I just think that the when, why, and how changes depending on the organization. Depending on the needs and culture of the organization, that could mean full-scale involvement on Twitter, Facebook, a blog, commenting on others’ blogs, etc., OR it can be as simple as adding RSS feeds to your site and setting up an alert anytime mentions your org’s name on Twitter. It just depends on what you’re ready for and what makes the most sense.

  • Don’t get me wrong – I do think that public-facing organizations NEED to get in this space. I just think that the when, why, and how changes depending on the organization. Depending on the needs and culture of the organization, that could mean full-scale involvement on Twitter, Facebook, a blog, commenting on others’ blogs, etc., OR it can be as simple as adding RSS feeds to your site and setting up an alert anytime mentions your org’s name on Twitter. It just depends on what you’re ready for and what makes the most sense.

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