I just attended a workshop by an organization I'm a member of, where they rolled out Twitter with great hoopla. A few things arose which informed me that this organization still doesn't understand social media, so I thought I'd put down some tips for organizations who want to get into this "new" (yes, that's sarcasm) means of communicating.
You can't control the conversation!
Social media is, by definition, participatory. The whole "Web 2.0" schtick is about user-generated content. This is crucial for organizations to understand, because it has several implications. In the old days you'd have a staff person craft a head-honcho-approved press release, and you'd send it off to the newspapers. The newspapers would then, if interested, take your carefully crafted press release and judiciously quote from it, perhaps contact your organization for further information, and in the end publish a relatively neutral piece based on the facts and without any particularly strong bias. All very clean; no mess, no debate.
The old days are behind us. Anything your organization does or produces for public consumption is entirely up for grabs. People on Twitter, Facebook, and any of dozens of other social media sites will take your fancy press release and dissect it mercilessly. They will quote from it, but not judiciously. The quotes will be sound bites taken out of context not to illustrate a point, but to further the argument being made by the person using the quote. There will be wide-ranging debate and conversation, and most of the debate participants will be completely uninformed and ignorant of your issues. Ridiculously strong biases and polarized views will be presented. Politeness will be the exception, not the norm.
The "dissenting opinions" that used to upset you will be soon be regarded as quaint, civil, polite conversations that you'll fondly recall and wish you were still dealing with. Misinformation will run rampant.
You can't Censor the conversation!
In case you haven't clued in yet, you can't censor the conversation any more than you can control it. If you think that censuring your members or employees for publicly expressing their views is going to fly, then you're still stuck in the old days. There are numerous cases where organizations censuring people for online expression has turned into a public relations nightmare.
Here in Canada, people have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression. That right is not limited by their employment or association membership. In a democratic free country, it's in fact not limited by much at all, as it should be. Unless the people expressing themselves hold some sort of official spokesperson capacity in your organization, you can't control what they say (nor should you try). Even if they do, they have a right to express themselves as personal individuals. So suck it up. Trying to censure people who write unflattering things about you is a fool's game. It makes you look bad and shows that you're out of step with modern technology. Simply respond with consistent messaging.
What social media has done is to give everyday people a voice. You can no longer expect your company or organization to operate in a vacuum where you're not subject to any scrutiny or criticism.
So if you can't stifle free expression by censoring the conversation, what can you do? First of all, if you're being criticized online, you need to engage in some introspection. None of us are perfect, and chances are if you're the target of criticism, then at least some of it is justified. Try to set aside your emotional reaction to what may be crudely expressed criticism, and parse out the key points being made against your organization. This will lead to a rational, effective response.
For items where the critic is correct, swallow your pride and make the necessary changes. You'll get kudos for making a change, instead of more criticism for defending a flawed status quo. If the critic is making valid points but you have specific reasons for doing things a certain way, explain yourself. Social media is about communications and interaction. You'll be respected for explaining why certain positions were taken, but you'll be reviled if you simply try to silence someone or keep secrets. Similarly, if there is misinformation or factual inaccuracies, correct them. Do it politely. Heavy-handedness won't fly in social media. In social media, everyone's voice is equal.
You can't manipulate the conversation!
Okay, you can manipulate the conversation, and people have and do. But when that manipulation is uncovered (don't be naive, it will be uncovered), it's bad for your organization's image. So don't do it.
Newbie mistakes with social media generally take the form of shallow Twitter spam. While an individual may tweet about watering their plants and other inconsequential things, an organization should avoid doing so. Twitter, just like any other medium of communications, should be part of an overall communications strategy.
If your head honcho is making a speech, you don't want one of your staff people tweeting snippets of it every two minutes. Instead, you want to have the complete text of the speech available online, and tweet that "Head Honcho is making speech about how Social Media Creates Accountability. Read it here." with a link to the text of the speech. Yes, it means you'll be making your speech available for criticism and scrutiny, and you'll be held accountable to what you say. Guess that means you better be sincere and make it good, huh?
Another newbie mistake (or unethical decision, depending on how forgiving you are) is astroturfing. Astroturfing is creating false hype for an organization, event, etc. So if we go back to the example of Head Honcho making his speech, and his assistant is tweeting excerpts every two minutes, that's one form of astroturfing. It's not genuine. It's a fake conversation. Now, if members of the audience that aren't closely tied to Head Honcho start tweeting about his speech, and other people start re-tweeting those tweets and replying to them, and people start re-tweeting your (non-astroturfing) tweet with the link to the text or video of Head Honcho's speech, that would be a genuine conversation that had arisen. Essentially, resist the temptation to make self-serving tweets. It's unprofessional.
So how do we do it right?
A large part of doing it right is being genuine. A simple way to start is to use Twitter to disseminate links to press releases and other information. You want to consistently communicate the image and character of your company or organization.
As you become more comfortable with the online presence you've created, you can begin inviting interaction. Post a question on something, or invite feedback. Expect that some of the feedback will be negative; few conversations with any substance to them are devoid of disagreement. Dissenting opinions and negative feedback are part of what makes the conversation genuine. Take them as an opportunity to clarify information, dig deeper into a topic, or perhaps revisit a stance you've taken.
Build trust by engaging in genuine conversation; don't send out canned responses. Make sure that the decision-makers in your organization are apprised of the conversations that take place. If the conversation never leaves your Twitter account and never makes it into a boardroom, then it's simply a crowd-pleasing facade. If your organization's direction is in part guided by social media, then you're utilizing it at a very high level.
The bad part of social media is not that anyone with an axe to grind can take you to task. The bad part is that social media is so completely fragmented; Twitter is just one medium of communication, but the social media universe also includes Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Blogger, WordPress, Orkut, Google+, and any of thousands upon thousands of sites where users can interact and discuss things online. A good strategy is to use various mediums for specific levels or types of conversations, and try to use your various social media outlets to funnel users towards particular places where they can engage in more in-depth conversations (your company's message boards, web site, etc).
Yes, you're right in thinking that social media is a whole lot of work. It is. If you're not prepared to deal with it, beat a hasty retreat now. People will still talk about you online anyway, though.
Can you screw up social media? Yes, you can. You can put your foot in your mouth repeatedly, you can disrespect the people who're involved in the conversation, and you can face a backlash if you're dumb enough to try silencing people. More likely, though, you'll simply just be lost in obscurity on the net. However, if you're diligent and hard-working, not to mention lucky, you might be able to build some momentum around your brand.