why social media is hard for government and corporate america

Since the dawn of commerce and government we’ve been programmed to believe that enterprises are not human – they are better: polished, powerful and perfect. They have a presence (rather than a personality) that does not include human characteristics, like warmth, vulnerability, hobbies or ears. The job of the people in the enterprise has always been to perpetuate and perfect this presence.

Now employees and leadership both are confused by their centuries old mandate not to act human, and their new one to do just that. They see the risks – revealing too much, legal liabilities, competitive advantages, and all – and are unsure of the rewards.

but they’ve heard about viral and loyalty and word of mouth, and customer-evangelists. they’ve seen obama be cool and successful.

and they’d like to too. but to do this they need to take a big risk. they need to be human – vulnerable, imperfect, and all that. The people in the enterprise need to be free to (and encouraged to) come out from behind the curtain, and to know what that means.

1. Most enterprises don’t share enough with their employees for the employees to feel confident as spokespeople.
– beyond the mission statement, the leadership needs to tell people what the priorities and values of the company are. not just in an annual meeting, but constantly. it needs to be true and real – not white washed. if you can’t convey your mission, aspirations and values to your employees, they can’t internalize them and convey them outward as people. Solution? Internal dialog. perhaps internal social media. NOT the pr folks working phrases. You. The CEO. The VP of whatever.

Here’s a simple example of corporate leadership being human in an inspirational way:

That’s not too hard. A nice step. A nice example. You could do that. You could go a step further and add an email address. You could go a step further, and do it a couple layers deeper in the organization.

2. Government and Commercial enterprises fear the loss of the power of the curtain.

It takes a tremendous amount of confidence to be human. It means that you are confident that on the whole, the value your organization brings to its customers is very high, and that you are operating with integrity. That you are generally proud of what goes on inside.

This is a kind of confidence that companies have not had to develop or test. But the people and organizations that we respect most are the ones with these qualities. Its the difference between Hillary and Obama, in many ways.

3. Unclear on the upside.
Well, here it is. Corporate credibility is on the decline – not because corporations are, but because people have now had enough experience to know that the facade is just that. Who believes advertising? Who trusts the literature? But they’ll trust a person – one they know, for a recommendation, or one they don’t, who gets to know them by listening, showing an interest, speaking clearly and honestly, sdoing what they say they’ll do – someone who builds a relationship with them.

If you want credibility now, you need to be communicating as an organization of people, not a corporate entity.

I’d like to collect some more examples of corporate and governmental humanity – if you have links to small examples of this, please share.

Thanks for reading and have a very happy new year.


  1. Hey Deb.

    Excellent post. This sums up the culture/mental shift that leaders of large companies and institutions have to make “a presence (rather than a personality) that does not include human characteristics, like warmth, vulnerability, hobbies or ears.


  2. I’d say that government has unique challenges in that individuals, rather than the organization itself, are constantly under scrutiny. Also, it’s tied to different standards. A government employee can get into trouble for accepting anything over the price of a cup of coffee, for instance. Finally, nearly anything written down in government is considered open to the public, anyway. What I’ve seen is that that makes gov’t employees AVOID writing down as much as possible.

    Government attracts attacks from people who simply want power, from people who have chips on their shoulders, and from organizations looking to exploit any small weak flaw in support of their own objectives. Granted, at times, this is justified. 90% of the time, it’s just a ploy.

    So, I don’t see it so much as letting go of what’s behind the curtain. I see it as a very different playing field.

    1. Len, GriffinClubMerv – you are highlighting some important issues facing govt workers, that I don’t deny. I think that understanding these diffs between government and commerce is increasingly important. However, I’m not sure that the government is uniquely under scrutiny – but they are more completely accountable. And you’re right, there are many cases where an individual govt worker may not be able to address the issue – as in the snowplow example, but if a govt worker can let the person know that their concerns are heard, and that they’ll try to bring them to the right place so those types of problems can be avoided in the future, that’s making citizens feel heard, gives them more confidence in the govt, and makes them more likely to act as a partner in govt. If the govt worker has no recourse, can do nothing, and has no intention on acting on any of the info, perhaps we need broader thinking in terms of what socmed is for in the govt.
      I can say that the level of passion, effort and dedication in this realm leads me to believe that most govt agencies are giving this real thought, and will make progress.

  3. One important difference between government and corporations – when it comes to social media – is that a different set of problem solving skills are at work. Government can do some things with social media like facilitate local business interaction, broadcast information about upcoming events or happenings. But government would struggle to resolve many of people’s hard feelings or “issues” with government. Examples: “I’m sorry that our city plow filled in your driveway with snow. But no, we can’t send a crew out to shovel you out.” Or “I’m sorry that you are upset that teachers are getting raises this year. I hear you on that. But the teachers are getting raises this year.”

    Businesses have far more avenues available to make customers happy than does any form of government. It would be nice if it were different, but it’s not.

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