Social Media Risks

One thing that came out of the recent barcamp for UK government types is that as much as those who really dig this stuff do their best to champion its use wherever possible, it really comes down to how senior managers feel about it.

The issue, of course, is one of risk. Doing anything different is inherently risky, and when that something different is directly engaging with people through an online conversational medium, then it’s even riskier. I don’t think we social media enthusiasts should ignore the fact (and it is, I think, a fact) that there are some really quite persuasive arguments as to why government, or indeed any organisation, shouldn’t go near this stuff.

Shel Holtz has come up with five common reasons why organisations won’t risk social media:

#1 – IT won’t let us

IT doesn’t want to spend the time or money to test social media software on company networks, claiming it can cost tens of thousands of dollars and take up to a year to make sure applications don’t conflict with existing programs. They also resist external hosting, asserting that it puts company data at too much risk. (Makes you wonder how much they care about our 401(k) data, since that’s never housed on internal servers.)

#2 – It will be abused

Employees will say inappropriate things. Customers will complain. Bad language will appear on comments. People will insult management. We’ll end up spending time on issues we don’t really think are important. Care to add to the list?

#3 – Management fears loss of control

The company has invested considerable time, effort, and money to craft a brand image that will be completely destroyed if we open it up to the masses. Besides, transparency is a bad thing and we don’t need our internal workings on display.

#4 – Legal and regulatory risks

Nobody likes a lawsuit. Besides, the Securities and Exchange Commission will the company if an employee inadvertently makes a forward-looking material statement. Pharmaceutical companies fear the FDA’s punitive powers for promotion of unapproved indications while the financial services industry fears fines from the bodies that regulate their activities.

#5 – We don’t have the time or resources

Communicators are already overworked. Where are they supposed to find the time to do all this new stuff? How can they even stay on top of the ever-shifting social media landscape?

These are all valid points, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t convincing counter-arguments, or mitigating actions that can be made to minimise them. In a future post I will cover what we can do to convince people that these are issues that can be overcome.

6 thoughts on “Social Media Risks”

  1. In my experience, there’s another one – closely linked to number 3:

    “But my job title is…” All this social media, wikified, open sourceification deconstructs job descriptions and career paths. People who’s self image and pension are linked to ‘PR’ or ‘marketing’ are scared that suddenly comms is everyone’s job. People who know themselves and their position as ‘IT’ are scared that computers are becoming means not ends. And anyone who makes a living with ‘comms’ on their job description are scared that they may just have to get out of the way and enable other to do it… better than them.

  2. That’s interesting, Paul. I have often said in the past that one of the lessons I think organisations have to learn in a world of social media is that communications is no longer the preserve of the press office (say), and web work no longer belongs exclusively to the IT department.

    We are all communicators, and we are all web editors.

  3. To an extent these reasons for avoiding social media just help remind me why I think social media can be such a good thing:

    Reason (1) is anti-innovation and experimentation. I’m pro-innovation and experimentation. (There is something in the critique that head-first experimentation and exploration of new ideas ‘in the open’ can lead to creating confusion amongst customers and can harm a unified customer experience… but that’s a reason for not rolling out an innovation to the core business without thinking it through – not an argument against experimentation and innovation per-se).

    Reason (2) and (3) are a big problem if organisations don’t have the ability to a) respond creatively, b) appologise if things go wrong, c) listen to their stakeholders and d) talk in a human voice. I think the ability to do a, b, c and d are important onces that I want to see developed in our public services at the very least.

    Reason (4) seems mostly an issue for traded companies. Where a big publically traded company or Multi-national has done something wrong, I’m not all that averse to there being a law suit.

    Reason (5) is the viable for me. How should we keep up? Well – perhaps we need to be driven by a pro-innovation, pro-human voice culture change, and then find the technology that supports us – recognising that the technology is pulling things in that direction anyway…

    That said – I think there are some other good reasons for caution around social media engagement worth exploring…

  4. Dave – you’ve done a nice job getting a number of the major objections that businesses have to social media/community. Building on top of Tim’s refutations, one of the things we tell our clients is that customers already say bad things about them (good things as well.) If they are participating in those conversations, how will they ever correct the bad things that people are saying about them?

  5. Looking forward to the mitigations! I hear these arguments nearly every day from all sorts of people in different organisations. They’re tricky to resolve despite our best intentions.

  6. Shel makes a lot of points, all of which I’ve heard before and all of which I’ll hear again. Thing is, Shel is talking about corporate sector communications. In public sector work, there is less choice, as they are

    A – Accountable to the public
    B – Trying to reach people that don’t engage

    As a result, if they don’t use Web 2.0 technologies, others will. Facebook groups sping up daily pro/anti various national and local government agenda’s and some websites now exist entirely to “watch” (which is normally speak for destroy) message credibility. These groups and sites reach a new type of person, a person who isn’t traditional “Hard to reach” but is disengaged from the newsletters and press release culture the public sector rely on for community engagement. The result can be a destruction of message, within these small but significant and growing groups.
    If PR professionals want to talk about loss of control when engaging in Web 2.0, they would be better looking at the loss of control if they don’t.

    Paul’s point is interesting too – and one that is very prominent in the public sector. Maybe communications professionals in this sector (and possibly other sectors) need to look a lot more at how viral campaigns etc can go some way to controlling Web 2.0 communications – rather than shying away from the problem.

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