Ignore or Engage?

Oct 28 2010 Published by under Professionalism

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My spouse refuses to tweet, blog, or engage in online networks. He will reluctantly view photos of our kids on Facebook, if I pull them up; he does not have a profile and claims he never will. His retro attitude is common among many members of our age group, but is it without risk? The November issue of Harvard Business Review includes an interesting article addressing these issues:

The CEO of a global technology firm was invited to lecture at a local university on the future of the internet. After his presentation, a student in the audience asked him for his views on network neutrality: the idea that internet service providers shouldn’t base their prices on the content their customers access. The CEO answered candidly, arguing in favor of price discrimination based on content; there was an engaging exchange; and he left satisfied with his visit.

Little did he know that, in the coming days, his semiprivate comments would enter a very public realm—the blogosphere—unleashing a storm of controversy around him and his company. (For confidentiality, names have not been revealed.)

The executive had no active social media presence—no profile on Facebook or LinkedIn, no Twitter account, no blog on the company’s website. He had decided that social media weren’t “his thing.” In fact, he became aware of the buzz over his comments only after some people in the company had alerted his communications group. There were lengthy discussions about whether and how to respond. Customers and other stakeholders were participating in the debate online, arguing strongly in favor of net neutrality. Employees were watching. Should the company issue an official response to comments made in a private setting? Could the CEO wade into the public discussion when he had never been active in the blogosphere and had no other social media platform? In the end, he and his team did nothing, leaving everyone feeling frustrated and helpless.

Soumitra Dutta, the Roland Berger Chaired Professor in Business and Technology at Insead and the academic director of Insead’s Elab,  is the coauthor of Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom: How Online Social Networking Will Transform Your Life, Work and World (Wiley, 2008). His article, What's Your Personal Social Media Strategy?, argues that all leaders must consider and adapt these technologies to avoid the scenario described.

Today’s leaders must embrace social media for three reasons. First, they provide a low-cost platform on which to build your personal brand, communicating who you are both within and outside your company. Second, they allow you to engage rapidly and simultaneously with peers, employees, customers, and the broader public, especially younger generations, in the same transparent and direct way they expect from everyone in their lives. Third, they give you an opportunity to learn from instant information and unvarnished feedback. Active participation in social media can be a powerful tool—the difference between leading effectively and ineffectively, and between advancing and faltering in the pursuit of your goals.

Each person must answer three questions to develop a personal strategy for these new tools:

1. Are your goals personal, professional, or both? Are there conflicts between how you want to present yourself in the two spheres? If so, you must decide which is more important. Think about the three realms of social media leadership—branding, engagement, and learning—and what you are hoping to achieve in each. Make sure that your online profile does not contradict your activity in the “real world” and that your messages are authentic.

2. Is your desired audience private (a limited set of friends, family, and colleagues) or public (your industry or even the world)? Social media activity will necessarily increase your presence and make it easier for others to Google you. How big do you want that presence to be?

3. What resources do you have? Does this project require your own time and money, or can it justifiably be done using office time and tech-team support? Please note that outsourcing is not an option. In social media, authenticity in your message is key, and only you can provide that.

The article presents some examples of how various social media tools can be used to meet various combinations of goals. Finally, the risks of being online receive consideration, including management of social capital (Do I friend coworkers?), management of intellectual capital (Could this post get me fired?) and management of progress (How can I decide if online activity helps me?).

Social media is here to stay, for the present time at least. Ignoring it will not protect you from adversity. Professionals and leaders need to be aware of its potential implications; presentations and "private" statements can go public quickly. Dutta's article provides a great starting point for those who do not know a tweet from a wiki...yet.

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