So many companies and organizations consider social media to be a threat to how they control their brand and messaging that they're missing the larger opportunity to use these powerful tools to build their reputation through authenticity and transparency.
They fear losing "control" because they have failed to recognize that they were never in "control" to begin with. That is because a brand can never be "controlled." Why not? Brands are intangible assets, created by the emotions that people feel when they experience, purchase or use your products, interact with your employees, see your name on the side of a vehicle on the road and a myriad of other uncontrolled interactions that happen throughout their lifetime.
A single employee steered the Exxon Valdez into Bligh reef in Prince William Sound, and had more control over Exxon's brand than the combined talents of their corporate communications department, PR and marketing agencies and teams combined. Similarly, when Captain Sullenberger successfully glided his crippled airliner into the Hudson River, he also had U.S. Airways' reputation in his hands. And while the "brand police" might have cringed over how prominent the logo was on the side of the jet, they can take no credit for how the reputation of the company was enhanced by Sully's actions that day.
Why then are organizations drafting social media guidelines (and some even attempting to impose prohibitions) when they would never consider handing out "communications guidelines" along with logo-ed apparel? The only difference between what someone says while wearing your brand and what they tweet is the scale and potential for social media comments to "go viral."
Face it: If you're worried what your employees are saying about you on Twitter, your problem is not Twitter. And the same applies to your customers, suppliers, and communities in which you operate.
A clever Internet video such as United Breaks Guitars would never have been made, or found an audience, if people didn't relate to the reality of insensitive customer service. No matter how clever the campaign, how slick the website and how compelling the PR, they cannot compensate for a bad reality. And a good reality is the best way to build a positive brand.
Fear of the negative prevents companies from taking advantage of the huge upside potential of empowering their workforce as brand ambassadors. After all, who knows you better than your employees? And if that's not something you're proud to share, your problems won't be solved by keeping them quiet. They're telling someone.
It is time for us to change the way that we think about brands and messages. It is time for dialogue with stakeholders instead of using social media as another channel to "deliver" messages to a passive "audience." Proactively responding to a concern posted on Facebook (rather than removing all negative comments and turning the page into an extension of your website) creates an opportunity to demonstrate your values and brand promise.
After all, it is the sum total of all of the experiences that people have with you that define how they feel about your organization. And remember it is possible for your good deeds to last as long -- and be as tweetable -- as your mistakes.
Follow John Friedman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JohnFriedman