Social media is dangerous
Here is your two second warning. You have as long as it takes me to get the top of my soap box to stop reading another article about social media. This one's a little different though, even if I do say so myself.
It's different because it's told from the perspective of the client and aims to shed a little light on why those in the public sector are so seemingly opposed to engaging with their audiences.
This week I went to a training seminar regarding a new content management system. It was typically pitched at idiot-guide level and inevitably became bogged down with debate about 'social media'. The conversation featured everything from the grim realisation that you can't switch your twitter profile off at 5pm, to the inevitable public-sector question of accountability and what's known internally as arse-covering. One person became so distressed by the potential pitfalls that they proclaimed, and I quote, "Social media is DANGEROUS!"
This last comment stuck with me and was followed up by a tweet from BBC Sports journalist and commentator Liam McCleod announcing that a BBC social media policy forbade staff from responding to individuals and RTs.
Having worked in the public sector for a considerable amount of time I'm used to this reaction. It's my job to show people how to build social networks that are designed to engage and build audiences in a realistic way. I'm employed to produce and deliver clear content plans and give teams the confidence to communicate in an approachable and effective manner, balancing the demands of the audience with the reality of being able to respond and enter into dialogue.
Naturally they're always nervous. For a start they don't how twitter works and what all the buttons do, where everything is, and what's Pinterest again? Many have set up networks without really knowing why and their content is floundering. They panic tweet at times of crisis management getting drawn into lengthy public debates that will never end well. Or worse still deploy a strategy of radio silence until it all blows over.
So, is the answer for large unwieldy public-sector organisations to clamp down on all social media activity? Should it be driven centrally with a core group of people responsible for tweets and responses?
For the same reason that many agencies will set up social accounts, will create guidelines that ensure the brand identity and tone of voice is carried across these channels and develop and deliver content strategies, but hand the day to day control and updates back to the client. Those doing the job day in day out know their job. They know the issues. They know their audiences. They know their products and services. It's a fast-moving platform and responses need to be well informed and speedy to avoid a debate spiralling out of control while people wait for sign off.
Social channels are also a two-way network with teams finding out news, events, opinions and suggestions from their followers and fans. It's not realistic or manageable for central communications to relay this vital feedback on to the individual project teams.
There are two issues here. The first is trust and retribution. Many of the conversations I have with my client teams are around a lack of trust and autonomy. They want to respond, they know that whatever they suggest will be approved 99% and they are just as frustrated if not more than their audiences with the communication lag. The need to have the final say for many organisations who are publicly accountable is almost overwhelming. But that's fair, isn't it? How many blog posts have you read about 'the bloody council'? If you were to look into it how many of those would be littered with mis-information and written in haste. The public sector needs to have consistency and one rule for all. The need to ensure fairness, transparency and balance the world's most demanding audience, the public, breeds a culture of fear of blame, which breeds bureaucracy. How accountable are the users of social media for the approach of the organisation they seek a dialogue with?
The second issue is the lack of understanding about what social networks are and how to use them. Things must always be checked with someone first, after all this is a politically charged environment and what if someone was to say something they shouldn't all-be-it by accident. The 'social' in social networks is not a misnomer. If someone makes a genuine mistake they can apologise and rectify that mistake, they can use their blog and traditional PR mechanisms to ensure the correct message is issued and no-one is left confused. With a clear content plan and a social media strategy in place including guidelines for tone of voice and a policy on what it is and isn't OK to share the risk of this is minimised.
The BBC, just like most local authorities, is public sector and there is a sense of ownership felt by the general public. To close down a channel of direct communication with this key audience is a strong signal that there's a lack of trust in staff. It carries a suggestion of something to hide, a lack of understanding of their audience's requirements and a general unwillingness to engage.
In short reply to the lady I shared my training room with, social media is no more dangerous than any other channel. Just as with other channels there needs to be a strategy, a plan for delivery, a series of guidelines, and a mechanism in place in the event of a 'crisis' situation.
The difference with social media is that it requires trust and autonomy within an organisation. Something often lacking in politically charged environments.