Losing Control

by Yang-May Ooi

Last week the IABC’s EuroComm Conference 2008 took place in Barcelona, where I chaired the plenary panel discussion on social media. I was joined by co-panellists Giles Colborne of cxpartners, a web usability expert, and Marc Wright of simply-communicate.com, an internal communications specialist. We had a really good session, which was primarily the result of great comments and challenges from the 80 or so business communicators taking part in the session. I just want to focus here on one issue that emerged from the discussions, which I think reflects the main concern of businesses around social media: control.

When we asked the delegates what was preventing their businesses engaging in the social media, the main reason appeared to be an anxiety about losing control. If you have a blog or social network space, people can come and leave negative comments. If you allow your employees to use social media for internal communications, they could spread seeds of discontent internally. Social media tools also make it easier for staff to leak your internal discussions externally. If you offer spaces for user-generated content, you can lose control of the content and message.

But we also discussed how control is an illusion in the brave new world of social media. There could be people out there already expressing negative views about your business or brand on other social media spaces even if you don’t have a business presence on the blogosphere. Your staff are already able to sign up to Facebook or set up their own blogs at home, even if you block them at work. Leaks occur with email as easily as via any other internet or intranet tool. Someone could be filming you or any of your executives with their mobile phone camera even now, capturing your pratfall or offguard comment to be served up on YouTube for the world to see. Employers are doing internet searches of potential recruits as an add-on to the traditional ways of doing background checks - will they find that photo of you taken by a friend at your cousin’s wedding with someone’s knickers on your head?

For businesses who are worried about controlling the message about their product or services, the least you can do is monitor what the online is saying about you even if you decide never to engage in social media. And if you do engage with a blog or other social media tool, that can actually help enhance your reputation especially if you engage in an authentic way. The community you build around your blog will come to trust, respect and like you and loyalty can count for a great deal in times of crisis.

For individuals, the question is: will we always have to be “on” not just when we engage online but wherever we are because we never know when someone may capture us unawares on digital media? This is a much more challenging issue. It is impossible to be perfectly behaved all the time - that’s just a fact of being human. And perhaps we have to trust that people know that - and that in the long term, people seeing someone’s mistake displayed on YouTube will recognise that it’s just a very human momentary lapse, especially if there are other images of that person online that counter lapse. Perhaps in this early period of the mobile phone video, there’s a lot of press and publicity about this issue because it’s novel but that in the long term, there won’t be such a hoo-ha because there’ll be so many unremarkable human failings available to view online. Or perhaps we will all have to hire public relations consultants to help us with reputation management in the future, whether we are Britney Spears or just an ordinary non-celebrity…

We did not reach any solid conclusions during the discussion, only that this is one debate that is going to contine.

What are your thoughts?

Photo: of car wreck thanks to OpenSkyMedia from flickr.com (CCL)

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