Stop shoving social media down your employees’ throats

Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone in your company should use social media.

It’s time to step up and address one of the great myths pervading the social Web—that decentralizing social media marketing and pushing it down to employees at every level of the company is a best practice. This is a philosophy that sounds good, but is often detached from practical reality.

I have been immersed in the social Web for more than three years. It’s a big part of my job. I teach about it. I consult about it, and of course I write about it. And here is a conclusion that I can confidently make: Social media marketing can be very, very difficult to do successfully.

So why do so many people insist that we should be shoving social media down the throats of every employee? This is like forcing me to do accounting; it would not be a good fit. Not every person has the right mindset, ability, or openness to succeed with social media, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still fit in your company.

A hiring problem?

Of all the people I interact with on the social Web, I would say I am most in tune with Jay Baer, but we disagree somewhat on this point. I’m not picking on him; his viewpoint is widespread. His recent post Speak No Evil—Why Trust Isn’t a 4 Letter Word in Social Media , is a good focal point for the issue.

Baer concludes that “it’s everyone’s job to represent the company on the social Web” and that if you don’t have employees who can represent you, “you don’t have a social media problem, you having a hiring problem.”

The underpinning of this hypothesis is that every employee should be both skilled and trustworthy on social media or you are not running your company well. This logic gets further twisted for me with claims that people can say stupid things to the outside world in emails, so why not trust them to use social media publically? Seems like apples and oranges. Emails don’t go viral. Just ask NFL player Rashard Mendenhall.

Should everybody tweet?

Baer uses the example of Mendenhall and his recent litany of tweets that were outside mainstream American thinking.

Let’s look at the Mendenhall example. Yes, he was out of step with mainstream thought, but who isn’t, to some degree? The man was hired to play football, not necessarily to “stay on message” during a news event. So did the Steelers make a “hiring mistake” because he sends out stupid tweets? No. The guy is one of the best football players on Earth.

Part of the “social media is for everybody” myth is that we should humanize our companies—trust people to be themselves and everything will be OK. Again, this is just too simplistic. You just might get what you ask for, as the Steelers ownership discovered.

I work with an extraordinarily gifted man who is one of the best salespeople I have ever met. He is kind of “folksy,” but he is a perfect fit for his marketplace, and there is nothing he would not do to serve his customers. The man is a star, and he has single-handedly built up his business. He’s probably the most valuable employee in the whole company.

Putting him into the public social media spotlight 140 characters at a time would be a disaster. I imagine his tweets would come across as incredibly embarrassing—taken out of the context of the individual and his environment. Does this company have a “hiring issue?” Of course not! His customers understand and love his quirky humor, but that doesn’t mean the world would. Here is what I would say to him: “You just keep selling your heart out, buddy. Don’t worry about Twitter.”

Uniform political correctness is impossible

When consultants pontificate that every employee should have enough common sense to use social media, what they’re saying is we need to hire people who are always politically correct. Which of course will create the most boring, ineffective companies—and who would even want to work there? Not every employee has good judgment about everything—especially when we are turning them into public spokespersons.

Let’s put this into a practical context

Applying social media effectively requires business sense and balance. Why would we set an expectation that everybody should be able to have a role in social media?

I think it makes more sense to encourage social media participation in the context of the goals of the company, the available resources, the competitive environment, and the talents of the employees:

1. Employees can become online “beacons” for your brand, but don’t force them to do it or dismiss it as a “hiring problem” if they don’t want to blog or participate in Twitter.

2. Acknowledge that social media participation is going to occur, sanctioned or not. An explicit social media policy is a must.

3. If employees want to be formally active on the part of a company, train them and give them the guidelines they need. Explain how it connects to strategy and the implications of representing the voice of the company.

4. With the increasing importance of social participation, start adding this to the job requirements of new employees if that’s key to their role in the company. For example, I certainly would not care if a star engineer doesn’t want to blog. You know, some people have to be about the business of actually making stuff.

What do you think?

Mark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and he blogs at grow.

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