THE BLOG

A Common-Sense Approach to Social Media

12/14/2009 07:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are you embracing the collaboration phenomenon that has been storming, complete with thunder, lightning and rain over the past few years? Or have you been hiding under an umbrella to avoid this "social media" storm? Thomas Friedman was spot-on when he wrote The World Is Flat, which explains and defines globalization and the interconnected presence we share. Yes, we are all interconnected, whether we want to be, are expected to be, or prefer not to be. We are, as they say in poker, all in, as collaboration is here to stay ― and it's driven by technology.

Technology has provided the individual, employer, vendor, merchant, government and community with the ability to have a "voice" -- regardless of physical locale in this small world of ours. The only requisite is connectivity to the Internet, which is fast becoming globally ubiquitous. These voices now resonate as never before, expanding beyond one's wildest imagination. Who would have or could have imagined such 20 years ago, when the entryway to the Internet was a 28 Kb dial-up and an acoustic modem?

So here we are. We have a social media maelstrom at hand. Do you feel empowered? You should. Your ability to have an asymmetrical influence or effect has never been greater. However, this ability is a double-edged sword, as one voice can compromise a company's brand or divulge a trade secret, while that same singular voice can shine a light on an injustice or heap kudos on a firm for a job well done. As a business are you intimidated or exhilarated? How about both?

The exhilaration can come from being more closely connected to your customers or being able to enlighten your partners and vendors. The intimidation can be felt when receiving a hot and pointed comment and not having thought ahead on how to address an unhappy customer or a difficult situation in a very public manner. You very well may be thinking aloud, as Hardy said to Laurel, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." Let us use a bit of timidity and humility as we apply some common sense to social media.

Just two generations ago, an individual's written words were printed in hard copy and stored in shoeboxes, memorialized in one's memoirs, or shared with a small selective audience by hand or print media. Now, through social media networks, blue-sky thinking can be accomplished in a crowd-source manner. Individuals share thoughts through the many collaboration tools and portals available, which are notably available to all. A word today, literally, is able to morph into a product or an action tomorrow.

The reality is, participation in social media networks is not optional but mandatory. It is coming to you in a variety of forms at breakneck speed. If you haven't embraced it, your employees, customers, clients or partners will. They probably already have. Be a part of the conversation or be the topic of the conversation. The former is superior to the latter, and the solution lies within your strategic approach.

So how do you address social media and its implications? Whether you are an individual or a commercial entity, I recommend investing thought in your own Social Media Compass to guide you and your entity, regardless of size, to create a handbook or guide.

Some thoughts to consider as you set your course:

o You Are Responsible: There are no do-overs. There is an adage, "Once posted, forever toasted," which serves to highlight the reality that your information, data and content will be available to one and all, seemingly forever, and it is guaranteed to revisit you sometime in the future.
o Abide by the Rules: Individuals are accountable for their actions. This is a basic tenet of public discourse and elucidation. Don't share your company's confidential data. Don't speak about clients.
o Be Mindful: Your opinion may not align perfectly with those of others. Indeed the opinion of others may be diametrically opposed to your point of view. Be mindful and allow the difference to occur. This difference is your opportunity for dialogue, and dialogue is the avenue to understanding.
o Be Respectful: Treat others with respect in your responses and interactions. Sarcasm is seldom appreciated by the target of your clever wordplay and is easily misunderstood. Be direct and engaging. An individual has taken the time to share his or her thoughts. Listening to one's customers and partners is the best way to gain insight into your successes and those occasions when opportunities for improvement manifest themselves.
o Be Yourself: Use your own voice. Don't use a stilted or artificial approach. Decide early on whether you will be engaging with the corporate hat firmly and squarely on your head or if your voice will be yours alone. If the former, allow yourself to express your personal thoughts, but always keep them in context, as you are associating what you say with your corporate brand. If the latter, provide full disclosure when you mention your employer, so that all can understand your personal perspective.
o Be Honest: Nothing loses credibility faster than a mishmash of factoids or flat-out dishonesty in place of a direct statement. Honesty isn't a suggestion, it is a requisite.
o Add Value: Above all, bring value to the table. No one is interested in a rehash of old information or methodologies. Bring your voice, perspective and solutions forward, and do so in a way that the audience can understand the value you bring to the table.

The technology is remarkable and becoming even more so. On occasion, the tools and applications being used are in beta or alpha testing. Thus, security may not be baked into the software, nor may there be a full consideration of the environment being traversed. Unintended consequences may result. What to do? It's a real challenge: Do you allow penetration of your corporate firewall by these applications? Are you technologically astute enough to understand what the penetration could mean should a piece of malware be turned free within your environment?

Regardless of your response, it pays to discuss these ideas with your employee base to provide them with guidelines, share expectations, and outline your own clearly defined level of tolerance. While social media is transforming the way people interact and communicate, it is also changing the way IT professionals need to interact and communicate with the employees they're tasked with supporting. Social media provides an opportunity for IT departments to develop a stronger relationship with end users. An IT department should always have been an educator and an adviser to its constituents. It should always have been a partner. For those IT departments that never established that brand or ventured out of the back office - for those who never grabbed the opportunity to reshape IT as a human function rather than solely a technology function - social media is the catalyst.

So how do you start? An effective first step is to create a handbook or guide to communicate how to address given situations, such as third-party collaborative environments, personal or corporate blogging, podcasts, online programs, video streaming and the like. The handbook will clearly define what you allow from within your environment and what is prohibited. In crafting the guide, it is crucial to explain the "why" behind each instruction. Without sharing the "why," you make it difficult for users to understand the impetus behind the requested action. Additionally, instead of simply saying, "No, don't do that," explain the proper procedure to users thus enabling them to use a tool and not shutting the door altogether on collaboration.

You own your words and are measured (dare we say judged) by the company you keep within the social media milieu. You have ownership, accompanied by the weight of accountability and responsibility. Your verbiage -- whether communicated orally in podcasts and videos, or written in blogs, tweets, posts, and photos -- is yours. Choose your words with pride, as we'll be reading them for many years to come. They will be associated with you, both in context and out.

Individuals need to be especially mindful in the selection of photos, videos and audio content, and must post these with care, as they too will be availed as reference material for posterity. We are all learning how the Internet and its vast archival caches have led to the ultimate "way-back machine." Use the Web and other social media tools with care and common sense, and we'll all be safer for it in the end.