Social media or distorted dialogue?

Two huge organisations have approached me recently, asking whether and how they should set about using social media tools to reach out to parts of their community with whom they don’t …

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24th March 2008 at 5:44 pm

Two huge organisations have approached me recently, asking whether and how they should set about using social media tools to reach out to parts of their community with whom they don’t have a particularly good relationship at the moment.

One was a country – the people who surround the leader came to me via a mutual contact. It was the sort of country whose leader is not that keen on dissent and the particular subjects he wanted to reach out to were probably the most dissenting.

The other was a major IT company which prefers to be selective about who it talks to and what it talks about.

It occurred to me that my conversations with these people might help you if you’re thinking about using social media yourself. In both cases, the conversations were fairly short. But they were also different.

In the ‘country’ example, the dialogue would have to be open to all-comers. It would be impossible to engage with a large, growing and spread-out chunk of the population otherwise. But the leader clearly saw social media as a broadcasting mechanism rather than a dialogue. But, for it to work, it would need to be two-way. Culturally, the country wasn’t ready for it. It would need to become more genuinely democratic and be willing to listen and respond to unwelcome points of view, no matter how honestly held.

My advice was “you’re not ready for it”. And so it proved to be when the ins and outs were discussed in detail. At least the ideas have been seeded and the issues examined in some depth. It’s a start.

The company situation was a little different. It wanted to reach a particular group of key influencers. The problem is that these people could cause trouble. They tend to ‘hunt in packs’ and if one raised an awkward topic in a community setting then this would alert the others to the issue and they would pile in too. Before long, the conversation would get raucous and the company would find itself on the back foot. Especially since there are quite a few things for the influencers to get raucous about.

So the company was coming more from the point of view of, “why should I make trouble for myself?” The answer, as ever, is that the influencers would be having the conversations among themselves anyway and wouldn’t it make sense to be part of the discussion? A) the company could find out what bugs the influencers and B) it could pitch in with its own perspective.

This one isn’t played out yet. The fundamental issue, like the country example, is ‘command and control’. It’s a culture thing and some organisations are just not ready or willing to be open, honest and trusting.

My advice in this case was to suggest creating a small private community for selected influencers and let the community grow by invitation where all, including the company, can debate the suitability of proposed new members. Even this has its dangers, but at least it creates the opportunity for an open and meaningful dialogue.

The bottom line for the leadership of both the company and the country is “what’s in it for me?” “Can I translate the effort expended and the exposure risked into a real benefit for the country/company?”

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if neither takes things any further. Neither strikes me as being ready to be truly open or willing to see issues aired in a community forum. And, I suspect, nor would either be prepared to put in the time and people resources needed to sustain the dialogues.

Social media is not for everyone. I think this is clear. For people I’ve just described, it’s probably a case of sticking with the traditional hierarchical approach of working with and through selected influencers and thought leaders.

It will, undoubtedly, save time but it will almost certainly distort the dialogue in each direction.

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David Tebbutt is an award-winning columnist and feature writer who specialises on the subject of using software and technology to increase business productivity. He's an analyst with Freeform Dynamics but, in previous lives, wrote for Director magazine, Real Business and was also editor of Personal Computer World. http://freeformdynamics.com

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