At yesterday’s Gov 2.0 Camp New England Unconference, the final session of the day I participated in was, “Getting to Yes,” led by Brad Blake and Jess Weiss. The obvious premise of the session was that social media enthusiasts usually face significant barriers to employing social media in their workplace. There were several good takeaways from the session, particularly the pointers to Mass.gov’s social media toolkits (which I have found very useful and adaptable). However, the discussion surfaced more challenges than solutions and it seemed to me that many in the room were frustrated by various institutional obstacles to using social media in their work.
It’s a familiar situation to a lot of us: say you want to start a blog for your department or agency so that you can engage with constituents more easily, and in a more timely manner than you can through your official web site. Or perhaps you want to use Twitter, Flickr, Facebook or some other social network. Unless you are the chief executive, you need to get permission, and in most cases, that permission is given by committee, with input from the IT department, the communications department, the legal department… IT fears security breaches; Communications fears losing control of the message (often, communications fears communicating); Legal fears everything, but particularly the exposure of private information. Supervisors fear lost productivity, that you’ll be wasting time on the company dime. Getting to yes can be quite a gauntlet.
Though much has changed in the past five years as awareness of social media has grown, fears about security and wasted time remain high, as does the fear of technology. To non-enthusiasts, social media is just a big Pandora’s box they’d rather not open.
It all boils down to the fear that if we engage through social media, something big, bad, and more than embarrassing is going to happen; the fear that an employee will do something stupid that will hurt the organization and torpedo its credibility; leading to the conclusion that using social media well will require a lot of training first, and that there just isn’t time for that right now.
To be sure, there is no shortage of social media fiascos, or employees who have been fired thanks to posts on Facebook or Twitter. But — and here is my message to the supervisors and directors at the top — the truth is, the chances of a social media disaster grow greater every day you and your organization wait to learn how to use social media. If you look at the history of social media blunders you will see that nearly all of them were self-inflicted wounds that resulted from inexperience at social media.
Let me just get one illusion out of everyone’s heads right now: There is going to be a crisis. Disaster is coming. You can’t avoid it. It’s like an earthquake — it is going to happen, you just can’t know when. So, are you going to be prepared? Are you going to start shoring up your plans now to respond and deploy social media effectively?
For those who’ve been wary of opening the social media Pandora’s box: consider that box is going to open one day no matter what you do, and the havoc unleashed will be greater the longer you keep the box closed. Here are a few things you can do to get started today:
- Assess your employees’ readiness: find out what their existing skill and experience level with social media is. You may discover some surprises, and you’ll learn what kind of social media training you really need.
- Deploy blogs, wikis or other social media tools internally, where it is comparatively safe, and train employees in using them; even if these don’t “take off” it will start moving your people along the learning curve.
- Develop a social media policy. Balance legal requirements with the opportunity you have to educate your employees how to do social media well.
- Create a social media engagement strategy. To get the most out of social media, like any initiative, takes planning. You’ll want a strategy that provides basic models for how social media engagement can be carried out in different situations.
- Set a near term deadline for deploying social media externally to make it real. Two to three months maximum.
With the right mindset and preparation, you can better handle the blunders and the fiascos which are sure to happen (they happen to everyone!) and deal with the earthquakes that are certain to upend your world one of these days.