Thursday, April 30, 2009

Social Media Ostriches

Given the enormous interest in using social media for business purposes, I've been astounded to hear comments like these at recent conferences:

"That's all really interesting, but I can't access any of the websites you just talked about. My company blocks all access to social media sites."

"We're only allowed to use Facebook and LinkedIn for one hour each day, from noon to 1:00, and we're not supposed to say anything about the company."

"Our network blocks access to any website with 'blog' in the URL."

"The only place our profiles can appear is on our corporate website. We can have a personal Facebook page for sharing family pictures and things like that, but if we say anything about the company we're asked to take it down immediately."

My initial reaction was that these people must work in incredibly retrograde, out-of-touch enterprises. I advised one woman to buy a copy of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual for her boss.

But although Cluetrain was an impressively prescient book, it was published in 1999; literally in the last century. To be surprised, at this stage, by the basic premises of the book—that conversations about your company are already happening all over the web, that your customers would sometimes like to hear directly from someone other than your CEO or designated PR contact, and that even "low level" employees might actually enjoy and provide value by interacting with customers online—is like being surprised that the nice Nigerian banker who randomly emailed you isn't really going to deposit millions of dollars into your bank account.

While struggling to understand this apparent dichotomy in attitudes over business use of social media, I came across this article on restricting employee use of social media. Allegedly, a leaked memo from Gannett, the publisher of USA Today, stated: "It has come to my attention that some staff members are spending a lot of time on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites during work hours...This is not appropriate. It is not part of the job. Occasionally it will be necessary for staff members to visit these sites for work purposes, but please reserve social networking and recreational pursuits for your private time."

Granted, it's unrealistic to expect all employees to instinctively understand how social media tools can be used to help achieve organizational objectives, or what constitutes appropriate social media behavior in the workplace. But the solution is to communicate some basic rules and provide a bit of training, not to block social media sites from your network. And ignoring the discussions about your industry and your company already taking place on social media sites won't make them go away, it will only ensure that your voice isn't heard.

If employees are really determined to waste company time, they'll do so with or without Twitter and Facebook. (For that matter, they can waste time even without a telephone or Internet access.) Persistent time-wasting is indicative of serious motivational / behavioral issues, which won't be resolved by blocking access to social media sites. Actually, encouraging employees to be aware of what's being said about your company—and to occasionally spend a modest amount of time participating in online conversations about your brand—may even be helpful.

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