There’s no question that social media is the darling of communications tactics at the moment, and with good reason. Social media gives communicators a direct, immediate and highly targeted way of engaging with our audiences. It’s a profound and permanent game changer.
The thing I find fascinating about social media is that getting in the game is simple. Log-in and you’re off to the races. While the ease of entry is one of the advantages of social media and a great equalizer among communicators—it also has some very real risks that are worth highlighting.
The first is that social media often leads to a sort of tactical tunnel vision on the part of both communicators and organizational leaders. It tends to produce a ‘shoot first, aim later’ mentality that’s more about doing something—anything—with social media rather than focusing on a target outcome.
Ten years ago communicators complained that all they heard was “I need a brochure,” combined with an expectation that the task would be completed even if the request lacked strategic context, purpose or outcome. What worries me is that social media now seems to be the brochure of the 21st century, with “get me a blog” the new order of the day.
That’s why the sound principles and practices of strategic communications are particularly important when embarking on social media initiatives. Here are some insights to guide your communications tactical planning:
- Even if you’re not using social media, your internal and external audiences are. The rise of social media has forever changed your audience’s expectations of the immediacy, authenticity and relevance of communications. When a Fortune 500 CEO, political leader or a rock star is just a Tweet away, the sense of connection, access and authenticity is profoundly altered. When news of a disaster streams through Facebook faster than through online news sites, the perception of time is compressed to a point where seconds matter. And when corporate titans and government leaders offer an unprecedented degree of transparency via social media, expectations of information are forever changed.
- It will transform your organization. Social media will have a profound impact throughout your organization, on your corporate culture and on how you engage with your stakeholders.
- It is the death knell of command-and-control communication. Social media has upended the old way of communicating, which was all about hierarchy and tight constraints on what is communicated, to whom, and on what schedule. There’s no going back.
- It is not free. Social media requires a long-term commitment to participating in online conversations in real time. While launching social media accounts may not have a direct cost, maintaining them imposes very significant costs in staff time and focus.
- It changes internal communications. Just because your organization doesn’t use social media externally doesn’t mean you can ignore it internally, since it transforms the expectations and cultural context for the exchange of information. It’s worth thinking about how this transformation can create opportunities to build engagement, collaboration and co-creation.
- One size doesn’t fit all. Social media is a catch-all term for several different channels, each of which has its own particular strengths and applications. It’s wise to think about your communications objectives and select the platforms that best meet your needs, because you probably don’t have the resources to do all of them well. You must adapt your messaging, tone and approach to fit the medium.
- It is infinite. Traditional communications channels have a natural end: at some point, you run out of copies of your brochure or finish the last speaking engagement on a tour. By contrast, social media is limitless in its scope, reach and scale. Keep this in mind as you create your activities, since there’s no magic number of Twitter followers or ‘likes’ on Facebook that will spell success.
- There is an opportunity cost to social media. It can have a highly consuming effect on staff time, resources and mental space. Consider the opportunity costs involved: if you’re doing social media, what else are you not doing?
- Social media effectiveness is a long-term game. How many executives wake up and decide that they want a Twitter campaign for a major initiative next week? It’s not possible. Social media has to do with building connections and profile through a sustained effort over time. Remember that expectation management is a core competency in strategic communications—and in no forum is this truer than in social media.
- Get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Social media is messy business: the velocity and volume of content is such that it can’t be perfect. The key is to define your objective and then make the most of it.