Social Media Needs Shades Of Grey

Shades of greySocial media operates in shades of grey.

The more I think about our application of these new tools to communications and marketing, the more I realize that things aren’t black and white. Ghost blogging is grey. Online personas are grey. The rules are grey.

Why should you care? Because your approach should be no different.

Your approach to social media will probably differ from most others.

Different situations, different approaches

I just finished co-chairing the Social Media Summit Canada Conference, where I watched Aaron Wrixon deliver a presentation on the Workplace Safety and Insurance Bureau‘s (WSIB) approach to monitoring online conversations.

The WSIB, an Ontario government agency, is at the beginning of its use of social media tools. Right now it uses a variety of free tools to monitor online conversations, and is in the early days of responding to them.

The WSIB’s approach to responding to conversations is based around the U.S. Air Force’s own decision tree. However, it is a little more tentative, ignoring any posts meeting the following criteria (emphasis is mine):

  • Obviously angry posts
  • Taunting/baiting
  • “Not of sound mind”
  • Wrong/misguided posts

The last point in this list stands out to me. The WSIB won’t correct misinformation about it online. What’s more, their protocol for responding to conversations is firmly centred around protecting itself, rather than communicating with the public. Legal, IT and Security departments are also heavily involved in the response process.

Remember the context

My immediate reaction, as yours may have been was that this was a poor approach to engaging online. Frankly, the specific and deliberate decision to not respond to misinformation means that (as David Alston mentioned earlier in the day) this information can propagate and in the absence of anything to the contrary, people may simply assume it is correct.

Before you judge, though, consider the environment in which WSIB and its staff operate. Fear 2.0 is rampant – to an organization that, for years, has had the illusion of being in control of its brand, the idea that it might need to engage with individuals is scary. It’s a huge jump for organizations that put layers and layers of approvals between communications staff and the public.

Culture check

One of the first steps on the road to social media adoption is a culture check. Does your organization really want a conversation with people? Is it really ready to accept that, contrary to the rose-coloured glasses people inside might wear, people do disagree with them? Are you willing and able to respond to conversations in real time?

Many organizations simply aren’t ready to engage with people. They need to adjust the way they and their processes work to effectively engage in a timely way (comment on a blog post 48 hours later and (a) most people have already been and gone, and (b) your comment may be buried at the bottom of a long list).

In this context, WSIB has adopted an approach that fits its situation. One might advise them that, at this stage, they’re just not ready to engage with people. They may be better-off monitoring and assessing discussions, and learning within their organization while they get to a point where they can have a positive effect by reaching-out online.

The important point here, though, is that the WSIB has adopted the “rules” of social media to its organization. Its staff listen and, within the context of their environment, they act accordingly.

Is it “textbook”? No. Is it ideal? No. Is it better than ignoring the online space? Yes.

Shades of grey. It’s not just black and white.

What do you think?

  • A lot of really strong points here. I think I’ve heard at numerous seminars and conferences about social media the axiom, if you’re not willing to go all the way with social media, don’t do it at all. While the pitfalls of not “going all the way” are evident, I do agree with your assessment of the WSIB. Their approach is not ideal, but, for now, it is what the culture there will allow. And beyond all else it is better than doing nothing at all.

  • Social media is something that you grow into as an individual or entity and people need to adjust to the temperature as they adjust to the climate. It can be a slow process, learning to let go. Because it is self regulated, you get out of it what you put into it. Everybody’s goals are different, and most of us fall into the shades of grey. There is no right or wrong, only different results.