My question was the obvious one: I wanted to know why the bloggers were being mean. "Well," came the answer, "they keep finding out about all the naughty things we do, and then they report on them."
I've been working with companies on their social media activities for some years now, and historically we've taken the straightforward, strategic approach. Start with clearly defined objectives, identifying how said objectives fit into the company strategy. Find out where your community is already congregating online. Determine how you can best contribute to that community and how those contributions can feed back into your objectives. Implement. Measure. Rinse. Repeat.
That traditional approach starts with the strategy question. But when it comes to social media, I've grown to realize there's a far more important question to ask, one that has become the fundamental starting point for any engagement: Is your company culturally ready for social media and, if not, what do we need to do to get it there?
See, traditional media doesn't require any kind of introspection. It requires crafting an appropriate one-way message, one that portrays the organization and its products in exactly the right persuasive light.
Social media, however, brings with it an almost unavoidable transparency, revealing to our community the flawed reality inherent in any company. It requires us to stop pretending we're perfect and focus instead on striving to be better.
The phone call continued: "OK, we get it, more transparency. So we should announce bad things ourselves before the bloggers write about them?"
Step in the right direction, yes. Solution, no. The idea behind airing dirty laundry is not to gain permission to leave it dirty. It is to accept that it is dirty so you can begin the process of cleaning it.
This is not a strategy question. It is a culture question. Does your company have a culture of defending the status quo, or of focusing on what can be done better? If the former, you will struggle at the first sign of conflict in the social media space. If the latter, your community is likely to support your evolution.
With traditional media, making your point is like having an argument on a TV show: the heroine delivers a witty and incisive remark, turns, and stalks away, leaving her adversary open-mouthed and speechless, devoid of comeback.
Social media, on the other hand, strips companies of the power to end the conversation at a point of their choosing. As Nestle found out, you don't get to engage as long as the relationship is going well and then close the door once things get hairy. Social media is more like a marriage: You have to work through the problems.
All this is not to suggest that your company must be perfect or perfectly enlightened before you should be allowed to create a Facebook Page. What it does mean, though, is that sooner or later we're going to have to take a good look at ourselves, and ask some hard questions. And the good news is that those questions allow us to begin the process of making that dirty laundry clean.
What's your experience with company culture and social media? Tell me about it in the comments or via @kcolbin.
Kaila's Spinning today as a sub for Joe Marchese, who will be back next week.