OPEN MIKE BY TERRY HEATON

Why Employees Should Own Social Media

Online, we live and breathe as part of a vast network, and the rules for everything here are different than they are for life outside. We lose both in terms of innovation and potential when we force the Web into the shrinking universe of analog living. Here are six concepts that should at least get you thinking about the wisdom of releasing control of our employees in a social media environment.

Those in media who view the Web principally as a sustaining innovation — that is to say that its primary purpose is to advance the brands of mass media players — continue to make serious strategic errors in their efforts to draw the Web into their newsrooms. Nowhere is this truer than in the discussion over how television stations should exploit social media for their benefit.

The latest suggestion is that employees’ Facebook accounts, for example, are actually owned by the brand, not the employee. Therefore, strict rules need to be enforced, as Diana Marszalek noted in an excellent overview last Tuesday for TVNewsCheck: “Who Owns, Controls Social Media Activity?

Stations are carefully wending their way through the minefield of social media dos and don’ts. With no industrywide standards yet established, they must determine how to oversee what employees — especially high-profile on-air personalities — post; whether they should be using station or personal accounts; and who owns such accounts and their growing legions of followers.

The only thing “standard” about the Web is its fundamental structure. It is a network of equal nodes capable of equal functionality. That’s easy to miss, I’ll admit, because we can make the Web “look” otherwise, but that doesn’t change its fundamental structure. Everybody is just a node, a URL, a “uniform (or universal) resource locator.” Anything, therefore, that WKKK-TV’s node can do can also be done by nodes representing each of its employees. Everyone is a publisher. Everyone is competing for attention. Everyone is a media company.

Online, we live and breathe as part of a vast network, and the rules for everything here are different than they are for life outside. We lose both in terms of innovation and potential when we force the Web into the shrinking universe of analog living. Here are six concepts that should at least get you thinking about the wisdom of releasing control of our employees in a social media environment.

  • If it “belongs” to the employee, he/she will work it 24/7. This is an issue with media companies that wish to make social media a part of an employee’s duties, because it becomes “work” for them instead of what they could and should be doing to advance their careers. News people demand time during the work day to do their social media duties, and this is problematic, given the resource demands of our newscasts.
  • People follow people, not institutions. All nitpicking and “concerns” aside, people form social relationships with other people, not media companies. When Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the Web, he wrote that it was more a social phenomenon than a technical one, which is why sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ seem to fit so well into our online lives. Even if our employees are identified solely as representing us, our fans have always connected with them more than us. There’s an inescapable artificiality about institutional “friends,” because the institution, by nature, only cares about itself, while there’s a chance (even if it’s thin) that “my” anchor cares about me.
  • Personal branding is what matters online. Everyone is competing, and we rob our employees of the chance to compete (on our behalf) by forcing them to behave in a certain way that benefits only our single node. We’re reaping diminishing returns in a world that is quite literally exploding. Bear in mind that non-employees in the community are not so encumbered, and they are growing in stature in the bigger news picture. Forbes has figured this out and to a certain extent, the Huffington Post. Their models deserve serious attention.
  • Being on TV has incredible personal branding value. Other local nodes on the network would do anything for a single chance to be on TV, and yet we squander any advantages our employees have by restricting their ability to compete in the world of personal brands. Think about this for a moment. We have at our disposal the greatest promotional medium ever created, and we’re not using it to grow the brands of the people who work for us.
  • TV employees are mobile, the Web is not. One of the concerns I hear about employees and social media is the fear that employees will “build up a big following and then take those people with them when they leave.” This is not only inaccurate, it’s 180 degrees from what really takes place. Those followers are local people, and they don’t “go” with the anchor or reporter. This is why we need to bring a form of promotional compensation into employee contracts. This would tie us to those followers, in perpetuity, as the quid pro quo for the marketing value we provide them.
  • The best use of the Web for local TV is to recruit viewers, not followers. In the beginning of the media’s use of the Web, it was a given that building a huge following online would translate to big dollars. It turns out those dollars are, at best, dimes, and it’s time we rethought the real value of the Web. Let’s begin to exploit the Web as a way to grow our traditional audiences. Turning our people loose to recruit viewers is not as far-fetched as it might seem. They can go places we cannot go, and their “friends” or “fans” have other friends and fans that might not favor our station. It’s a much more natural task for denizens of the Web than publishing branded content with ad messages attached.

I understand that it takes just one lawyer with a client who thinks he’s been wronged to bring about a circling of the wagons and attempts to “manage the risk.” I wrote a social media policy a few years ago, and its basic challenge to news people is “don’t do anything stupid.” Stupid tends to be problematic for any manager in any field, but in the end, it’s about risk against the potential reward. Rewards are an area of which we haven’t even scratched the surface.

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Terry Heaton is president of Reinvent21, a business reinvention strategies and tactics firm based in Frisco, Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]


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