The unrest of the Arab Spring has demonstrated that social media can disrupt an authoritarian regime—and businesses are no exception. Social media experts acknowledge that these tools can unleash forces that are difficult to control. Giving everyone a voice can challenge the worldview of people who are used to calling the shots.
"People who have grown up in a hierarchical business model may have some fear of the contact sport element of it," says Kathryn Yates, director of communications consulting at Towers Watson & Co. "Successful leadership realizes that that feedback is going on anyway, and you're better off being part of the conversation."
Here are some guidelines to your new social media future.
Be athentic. Social media have made it glaringly apparent to employees when they are being lied to or when information is being withheld. In order for leaders to be trusted, they have to actually mean what they say.
"With it [social media] comes an enormous responsibility to guard and nurture your company's culture," says Alicia Laszewski, marketing vice president for C3, a firm that manages companies' customer communications. C3 uses its Facebook page as an employee forum that can also be viewed by customers and potential employees.
"If your campaign is about people loving the work environment, you'd better create a company where people really love to come to work. If not, it's just a marketing campaign."
Start at the top. Workers watch their managers closely to see how committed they are to an open conversation. That means that managers need to be active on social media and set the tone. "You have to demonstrably give permission," says James Gardner, chief strategy officer at Spigit, a social media vendor. "You have to have senior leaders who communicate that it's OK to use social media and that if you do, you won't get fired."
Stay above the fray. Online, it is easy for a productive conversation to gallop off on a tangent or turn nasty and personal. While leaders feel the need to intervene, it's remarkable what can happen if they don't.
"If you stand back and let the conversation run its course, the employees will start to manage the conversation themselves," Yates says. The crowd often reinforces the corporate culture, marginalizes the catcalls, and seeks the best solution to a problem.
Adopt clear guidelines. Most companies with successful social intranets also have clear, published guidelines about what sort of comments and behavior are allowed. Most don't allow employees to post comments anonymously.
Respond quickly. In the old days, when a company found itself in crisis, managers knew they had a few days to formulate a response to employees. But in the world of social media, a few days can feel like a century.
Leaders need to accustom themselves to responding immediately or risk seeming deceitful or as if they're stonewalling.
"It's not that we ever had control," Yates says. "Maybe we just thought we did."
David Ferris is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.