Let Them Communicate

We’re living a communications revolution: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Google Wave, LinkedIn, blogs, forums, chat rooms, wikis. With the explosion of new ways for people to communicate comes debate within companies about how they should be encouraging (or restricting) what employees may use at work. I recall the exact same debate in the late 1980s when the company I was working for argued the wisdom of providing PCs and email addresses to employees.

One side of the debate—usually led by human resources (HR) executives and in-house lawyers—insists that new forms of communication are frivolous at best and dangerous at worst. These people prefer to clamp down and control what employees can and cannot do at work. To be fair, I do understand part of the argument here—that anything that an employee says on a social networking site can instantly be seen by the entire world.

Others suggest that free-form communication is where the corporate world already is: “Work is an online conversation,” they say. Sure, when anyone can communicate with a New York Times reporter on Twitter and your business partner is checking out your LinkedIn profile, it does seem like we’re going a bit loosey-goosey on the communications front.

I recommend organizations of all sizes confront these issues and implement a social media policy and assign a social media administrator in 2010. These two initiatives will allow employees to get on with the job at hand, giving them permission to communicate on whatever social networking platform makes sense while providing some level of comfort to HR and legal people.

Organizations such as Telstra, IBM, and the U.S. Air Force have created formal guidelines for employee’ use of social media, which they have published online for anyone to access. I’d recommend checking out IBM’s guidelines (freely available on the web for all to see at www.ibm.com/blogs/zz/en/guidelines.html) as a great example. Some of the items addressed in the IBM Social Computing Guidelines include “be who you are”; “be thoughtful about how you present yourself in online social networks”; “respect copyright and fair use laws”; “protect confidential and proprietary information”; “add value”; “don’t pick fights”; and “don’t forget your day job.” But the single most important aspect of the IBM Guidelines is this: “Speak in the first person.”

When somebody from your company says something in a social network using “we” as in, “We’re going to create a new product and release it in December,” that becomes a more formal announcement, even if the person is not authorized to talk about product launches. However, when that same employee uses the first person “I” such as, “I am working on a new product targeted for December release,” it becomes a personal statement. Simple.

The second component to effective communication is for companies to hire a social media administrator. This new role is needed right now, much like in the late 1980s when we developed the need for a system administrator and in the 1990s when we developed the need for webmasters.

Think of the social media administrator not as someone who develops content and participates in discussions via social media, nor as the senior leadership role for social media in an organization, but rather as the coordination point for company activities. The role of the social media administrator would be to manage and provide consistency for an organization’s social media presence.

In my travels, I meet many company executives who struggle with how to implement social media. The consistency and leadership provided by the person in this new role could help to reduce the fear that many have of social media. The responsibilities of a social media administrator would include maintaining an accounting and providing consistency for company accounts on social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The individual would ensure consistency in branding, update frequency, and permissions; be aware of abandoned accounts to be removed; and watch for rogue sites springing up using company branding. Another important aspect of the role would be to maintain a list of employees’ work-related personal blogs and make it available to the public on the company’s website.

So where in an organization does the social media administrator belong? At IBM and the U.S. Air Force, the social media guidelines were created and are maintained in the communications (public affairs) departments. There’s an argument that says the social media administrator should be an IT role, but I think it best fits in the public relations or marketing areas. No matter where it sits, the supervisor of the social media administrator must have a deep understanding of social media.