Social Media: Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone

Two days ago, newscoma penned a post to the TNDP. In it, she argued for a greater use of the “social media” tools at the party’s disposal. This post stirred up some thoughts about social media, transparency, and organizational messaging that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of weeks now.

For people who haven’t been involved in the “social media” revolution that has been going on, the idea of putting your life out there, writ large, for all the world to see must seem foreign, perhaps even narcissistic.

While narcissism may be a motivating factor in the use of “social media” for many, so is the catharsis that the medium provides. From my perspective, it is this cathartic experience that keeps me motivated to write about myself, politics, and the world around me. It may seem narcissistic to think that anyone would care what I have to say, but honestly, for me this is about process more than anything else…the process of thinking about, and better forming my opinion, perspective and positions. This is about my personal growth. When I started this blog, and previous writing exercises, I had little to no expectation that anyone would be interested in what I had to say. Over the past couple years, I feel my life has been enriched by the conversations and perspectives that I’ve been exposed to, thanks in large part to my participation in this medium.

For organizations, the prospect of engaging in “social media” is a bit different. Many organizations fear “social media” because they look at it more as some “time waster” engaged in by people who have too little to do (the Cheeto’s eating blogger meme). Further, organizations that have found themselves on the crosshairs of bloggers, or participants in the “social media” revolution, may be resistant, seeing it as only a tool for the opposition.

This represents a gross misunderstanding of the medium.

Social media can serve the traditional goals of messaging for an organization. It can be a lens to focus the message, a megaphone to distribute the message, and a microscope to examine the foundations of the message, or pick apart the opposition, but relying solely on these traditional messaging techniques ignores the most powerful aspect of the medium. Social media is an avenue, a large two way street to engage in a conversation with constituents. It is an opportunity for growth. It is a way to connect with people on a personal level that has never been available before, and this is where organizations, far too often, fail to understand the positive power and impact the medium can have.

This, of course, has its positives and negatives. On the positive side, better connecting with your core audience offers opportunity to better leverage your message and further the goals of the organization. On the flip side, opening yourself up to this also means that you will have to accept the good with the bad. Not everyone will share your goals, and some may work like hell to undermine you. But in truth, from an organizational standpoint, the only way you lose in this scenario is by allowing a “bunker mentality” to set in and withdraw from the potential positives.

Dissent is an opportunity for conversion. For the most part, people will not take the time to present a thoughtful dissent if they aren’t already, in some way, invested in the organization. By addressing this dissenting view in a thoughtful way, the organization has opened up the opportunity to “convert” the dissenter from an oppositional to supportive plane.

By the same token, there are plenty of bad actors out there whose intent is not constructive (trolls). Direct engagement may not be the best tactic in this scenario. The key here is to act in a transparent way that takes away their talking points. Most importantly, hunkering down is not an option. Proving them wrong through word and deed so as to discredit their authority is the only way to come out ahead. That won’t necessarily stop them from talking, but it will minimize their influence in the long run, which is the best you can hope for.

Finally, a word about transparency and message.

Organizations typically look at message as an unwieldy prehistoric beast, to be subdued and controlled, lest it roam freely and cause untold destruction. In a time, not too long ago, this may have been true. The game has radically changed now.

As we have seen over the past several months, traditional notions of “top down messaging” can only go so far. The world, like it or not, is far more open than it ever has been. Perception becomes reality for organizations that are resistant to true transparency, or who are unsure of the potential impact. Organizations have operated for years, seeking to put only their “best foot forward”. While certainly, one would not want to engage in a message that is destructive to the organization, allowing for more organic communication that shows both the strengths and the weaknesses, can result in steep gains for the organization. The shorter version here is that if people don’t know there’s a problem, they will most certainly not act to address the problem.

This is uncomfortable. No one wants to put their challenges out there for all to see. But challenges are opportunities for organizational growth if the organization is willing to grow organically. This means stepping outside of your organizational comfort zone, and allowing some of the warts to be exposed as an opportunity to find new ways to correct challenges.

This is something that social media is perhaps most effective at harnessing. Tools like facebook and twitter can be utilized to motivate people into action. Blogs can take these one step further by providing more in depth analysis for the more engaged elements.

In order for any of these things to work, they have to be used, and used in a straightforward way. This means putting aside some of the ego, and laying it out on the line for people. This means being ready to take criticism, constructive and otherwise, and using that criticism as a springboard for reform. Ultimately, this means that you may break the traditional rules of messaging. In doing so, you may also far surpass the returns of traditional messaging. It’s a big bet, that some have used better than others, and it requires a bit of savvy, but it’s not rocket science, and it doesn’t take a team of media specialists to accomplish, it takes organizational willingness and a mind frame of constant learning.

In the end, a lot of this seems counterintuitive, particularly in a world where message has been so heavily managed for the past 30 odd years. The reality is that people are coming to understand that they can’t afford to be disengaged, and when organizations don’t seem to be making an effort to engage, people either get angry, or look to solutions outside of the organization. Sometimes this can work for the organization, sometimes against, but the only way to even have a chance at success is for the organization to plow forward, to beg forgiveness when they stumble, to ask for help when they need it, to show signs of humanity rather than fake omniscience, and to always be looking for solutions to internal challenges.

That’s why they call it social media, because it is collaborative, and in many ways unrestrained. The best way to keep from being swept away or left behind is to ride the beast, and guide it to your success. It can’t work if you don’t use it, and pleading ignorance is not an excuse. The key is to jump in with an initial message with few objections to open up the lines of communication, and make a commitment to keep those lines open. It’s a wild ride, but if an organization is committed, it will reap rich rewards.

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