Clay Shirky’s essay in The January/February 2011 issue of Foreign Affairs, on the Political Power of Social Media, and Malcolm Gladwell’s response in the March/April issue, prompt thoughts closer to my personal, more prosaic experiences of using social media.
Nothing in my experience matches some of the scenarios referred to by Shirky, and little I think marks a business revolution alluded to by Gladwell.
What I have witnessed and been part of, though, is the clear sense of loss of control, and the clear sense of increased speed in having to react to events being discussed through these immediate channels.
One example is a recent one. Along with other colleagues, my role was recently made redundant as a consequence of a bold and exciting decision by my former employer to move its HQ operations from Australia to China. Of itself none of this is contentious. (It might not even be that interesting.) However, one former colleague is also an active blogger with his own on-line webinar and video show in which he expresses his opinions on new products, and the hi-tech market in which he operates.
His blog was already well-established and well-attended, so that the day after his departure, he was able to go to air with the latest news about our former employer, and do so without any requirement to seek permission. As a user of our former employer’s software, he also has legitimate access to the user Forum where he has also expressed his views about the company’s decision. And, furthermore, the company welcomes non-user members to this new ecosystem it has created. (that’s the point of an ecosystem.)
None of this is in any way under the control of the company. He’s playing by all the new rules of engagement. His opinions, in my view, don’t help, and as the former head of communications of this company, I’m watching the conversations play out with real interest, and it might be said a sense of relief.
His self-image is clearly one of an independent voice with an independent opinion. He posts links to mainstream media coverage on the Forum, so that everyone participating in the Forum can see what’s being written about this corporate decision. And none of this especially attacks the company, except perhaps by implication.
This is the first time in my experience that I’ve seen this confluence of effects and relationships, in which a user is also a former employee of the company that created the software, who is of a mind to carve an alternative career as an on-line commentator, and who also has access to the company’s own communications channel. As a professional communicator, for me the sense of loss of control is palpable. It will be interesting to see how this particular scenario plays out (not least because of the personal connections involved). Will the community rally round the company, or dissident voices? Will the company win the argument? And how does a company in this situation rally the silent majority in its defence against a vocal but still-small minority?
Social media channels allow companies to have conversations with individuals on a grand scale and create communities of people who care about the companies. One consequence is that these same people will, at some point, express an opinion that cuts across the companies’.
For professional communicators, this is new territory. Social media are not just extensions of old techniques on-line. Social media markedly change the speed and control of engagement, and this is as true in a commercial market niche as it is in a nation revolution with lives at risk (per Shirky’s essay).
As David Meerman Scott has pointed out, corporate communications policies and attitudes need to understand and accommodate this uncomfortable (for some) truth about this new era: that control is weaker, and speed is instant. Those empowered (or required) to comment must have genuine empowerment and authority to do so.
For senior management, the communications function needs to be thought of as a genuine spearhead into the market, as the genuine front-line engagement team.