The social network

Professor Jim MacnamaraA new study reveals the rise of ‘social organisations’ that lack strategy and governance – so how can companies mitigate the risks but capitalise on the opportunities of social media?

Almost half of all businesses and organisations in the private and public sector in Australia and developed Asian countries are now using social media, according to research by KPMG. A new term has even entered the lexicon of management – the ‘social organisation’.

However, 65 per cent of organisations have no clear policies or guidelines on employees’ use of social media, 67 per cent provide no training, and almost half do not monitor what is said about them in social media.

These are findings of a recent UTS study of the use of social media in more than 200 private and public sector organisations in Australasia – covering Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong. The findings point to a concerning lack of governance and a lack of strategy in what is becoming an increasing investment of time and resources.

The study found that only 34.8 per cent of organisations have specific policies and guidelines on social media use by their employees. More than 22 per cent have no policy or guidelines at all and another 20 per cent rely on verbal instructions and occasional emails.

Only 20 per cent of organisations monitor all mentions of their brand, products and services in social media, while almost 40 per cent monitor in an ad hoc or occasional way. Another quarter monitor only a small selection of social media.

Training and support

Only one-third of organisations provide social media training for employees, just over 23 per cent provide technical support, and very few provide support such as editing services for staff using social media, such as organisation bloggers (6.8 per cent).

The trend seems to be global. The UTS research was a collaboration with University of Leipzig academics who undertake annual surveys of communication managers across 43 European countries where 60 per cent of organisations have no social media policy or guidelines and only one-third have tools or services for monitoring social media.

The result is significant legal and reputational risk exposure for organisations from employees inadvertently or intentionally revealing confidential information or commenting inappropriately online, which can range from being ‘off message’ to posting offensive content or engaging in ‘flame wars’ with others.

A number of companies and organisations have already found themselves in legal trouble and face reputation damage because of employee leaks, comments and other online behaviour. The answer, however, is not to ‘clamp down’ on employees using social media, according to social media experts.

In addition to surveying communication managers in more than 200 organisations, the research study involved in-depth interviews with 14 social media strategists and heads of digital media in consultancies and major organisations.

Successful navigators of the online world say control is not an option. Social media cannot be controlled – it is simply too open, too vast, too unregulated, and often too anonymous. Attempts at control usually backfire on the organisation.

Instead, organisations should apply governance – key elements of which are clear policies and guidelines for employees as well as regular monitoring. Furthermore, social media strategists say organisations can engage with key stakeholders not accessible through traditional media and significantly expand their public communication and marketing by providing training and support for staff to become online ‘ambassadors’ and ‘evangelists’. ‘Turn them on, not off’ is the recommended approach.

Legendary examples include Sun Microsystems, which created more than 3000 staff bloggers, and Dell, which set up a Social Media and Community University to train staff across all its business units.

In Australia, Telstra has launched a social media policy and a number of government departments and agencies are leading the way. The NSW Department of Education and Communities has published its progressive Social Media Guidelines online and the Victorian Department of Justice has produced a short video to encourage and guide employees in using social media.

A 2011 KPMG study supports this staffenabling approach, warning that “clamping down was likely to result in more, rather than less, misuse of social media”.

Social media strategy

As well as establishing a sound governance framework, social media strategists stress the need for organisations to have a social media strategy. However, the research study found most organisations are adopting social media in an experimental way, or simply because their competitors and peers are doing so.

A social media strategy should include clear objectives for engaging online, details about who can speak on what, training and support. It should incorporate a sound governance framework involving policies, specific guidelines and monitoring of social media.

The ‘social organisation’ is a positive development for business, government and society, but it needs strategy to be effective and governance to be safe online.

Story by Professor Jim Macnamara PhD, Deputy Dean and Professor of Public Communication in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at UTS.