Sunday 22 April 2012

Losing control in the digital age

Press officers, communications teams, I am told, do not like losing control. So the advent of digital technology could be conceived to be their worst nightmare.

Now, I've never worked in a communications team where control was something hung on to for dear life so I can't comment on this from a personal perspective. But unless this is one of those memes that occasionally floats around the web as gospel when in actual fact it's utter fabrication, I guess I need to take it that this is so.

So assuming that it is the case, what are we going to do about it?

You see, it's pointless sitting around on social media bemoaning the fact the communications team wont let go of the control they have over social media accounts (if they've got any social media accounts at all) without doing something about it. And the doing something about it, to me, is the most important bit of allowing communications team to relinquish that control. Note I use the word allowing. Not forcing and not ensuring.

Forcing someone to do something usually results in one of two states. A jobsworth box ticking exercise where in this case control would be relinquished but the second something went wrong all the hounds of hades would descend on the poor unwitting perpetrator of the mistake, wrestle the account off them, change the password and then use it as a reason to never relinquish control again for the next 5-10 years or result in heels digging in, lots of scrambling around the web to find news stories of examples of where it has all gone horribly wrong in the last 5 years and a firm bolstering of the general view that nothing so horrific should ever be suggested ever again.


Forcing doesn't work. And neither does taking swipes at people for doing what has historically been exactly what they were paid to do.

So what are the alternatives?

Increasingly, I am veering towards the idea that social media simulators are not just the preserve of civil contingency teams. I am guessing, really only guessing, but I suspect a lot of the reluctance to relinquish control stems from the idea that something utterly horrific will happen if you do. That someones minor mistake will be blown out of all proportion and bells and whistles and swirling red lights will start going off, a big arrow will appear out of the sky and a booming voice will pronounce 'it's you'.

People who use social media every day know that this does not happen. Mistakes are made, tweets are missent, spelling mistakes are made, wrong attributions are given, wrong links are sent and no one dies. It's social media - people have forgotten within 20 minutes what all the fuss was about anyway - a quiet and quick apology and a correction will usually clear any mess up.

But if you don't know that, if you're not embedded in the network, from the outside it must look a very scary place indeed. And our rush to highlight failure probably does't help either. We need to stop focusing on those doing it wrong, and quickly turn it around into how they can do it right.

So I think I'm going to start a clarion call for a 'what's the worst that can happen?' attitude. Next time someone tells you that their business area is too risky to be on Twitter, or that they simply could not deal with the sheer volume of incoming requests that a Facebook page would generate, ask them what the worst is that could happen? Is it that someone might not get their query answered in 48 hours? Is that a life and death issue if 49 hours later they get an answer which is meaningful, thought about and genuinely correct? Is it that someone misspells something or links to the wrong web page? Is that something that a quiet apology cannot rectify? Is it that a FOI request will come in and everyone will see it? Is that not something that 'They work for you' and other websites have already pre-empted anyway? Is it that a citizen will somehow pick up on a news story or ask a question which will generate a news story which the local newspaper hadn't already picked up on? Do we think so little of our local newspapers that we think they'd sacrifice the often good relationship they have with their local Council on that basis (without proof that the claims were real) and if they did follow it up, does it really matter anyway? If you're open and honest with a citizen that a mistake has been made, where is the story? That a Council hid something that it had done wrong or that it openly and honestly confessed to a citizen that about having made a mistake and apologised in person to the citizen affected by that mistake instead of issuing a little noticed blanket apology through the aforementioned local newspaper?

Does it actually matter? Does letting go of that control actually mean the world will come crashing down? I am not stupid enough to think that there are some areas in local government where this approach is not appropriate. Nor am I advocating openness for openness' sake. 

What I am advocating is an end to accusations and a beginning to offering solutions, to reassuring and offering assistance rather than mockery and castigating. It is not possible to prepare for every scenario that social media might offer, in the same way that it is not possible to prepare and plan for every offline situation that might occur but there are parallells between the two. The possibility of exploring the opportunities that social media gives communications teams can only be truly realised when those same communications teams are equipped adequately for the new world they feel they are entering. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Louise
    I'm really pleased you've started posting here again, as I was missing you and was sad that you had taken a break from blogging here.
    I think there's a lot in this that I should be taking on board which is helpful in re-framing problems. This applies when I'm talking to council comms or other officers from the outside, as a frustrated advocate of the use of social media in civil society who wishes that local authority colleagues would join the conversation. And it also applies when I'm planning and having conversations with people in my own (voluntary sector infrastructure) organisation. I don't unrealistically dream that they will all contribute online, nor do I think that they will jump in at the same time. But I would hate for them to be put off by horror stories and untruths. Just a little more sharing online would have a significant effect on our knowledge of each others work... and when communication about work has been raised as problem in the organisation for over 10 years there surely is a lot to be said for a few more of us getting online. And that's just the internal benefit.