Speaking for yourself online is a key skill for everyone no matter what job you do. But should that always be left to PR and comms people?
by Anke Holst
Public relations, communications: broadcasting to the world outside what the organisation needs it to know. Social media seems to be an ideal way of doing this, so it's added to all the other channels comms teams know about and serve.
'Go where your audience is.' So far, so good.
Comms and PR professionals often become authorities on how other professions use social media – it is communications isn't it? Marketing agencies also take this role. Big consulting firms, IT giants sell social media consulting to their customers.
Every one of these professional groups sees social media through the lens of its own expertise. And I can understand that. You've studied for years, and have worked throughout your career to achieve the level of professionalism you are at now. You are definitely an authority. You aren't the authority for everyone else.
Being online as a person and being able to connect to other people through technology, listening, talking, sharing, learning... that's a basic skill set, a requirement for every kind of professional. Marketing, for example, is not. Does it matter that you are able to communicate what you want to say comfortably, with authority, confidence, bringing your personality and expertise to the message? Yes. Does it matter what time of day you do so? Not so much.
The confusion between what is essential for everyone, and what is a set of professional specialisms, has resulted in the huge complexity in how we talk to non-experts about social. There is so much to learn, because all of us in the industry don't consider this difference important. Social Media! It's big and it's scary! As a result, people who really should have a basic idea of it don't want to deal with it at all. 'We just don't have time to be on Twitter all day!' So, outsourcing one's voice to the experts has become the norm.
Leaders in all sectors should absolutely have the basic skills to be able to listen and talk online with confidence. Team members should feel connected with what's happening online in the name of the organisation and have ownership of their voices. Events happening in the various teams, when talked about online, become stories, which together can make up the picture the organisation tells the outside world. All with the support, guidance and curation of experienced Comms professionals. And rather than just stories, this becomes the basis of actually connecting with the world – colleagues, partners, peers, interested parties, potential and existing clients – in order to do the work of the organisation differently and better.
Can these connections be made with a member of a comms team far removed from the action doing the 'engaging'? Definitely not with the same kind of authority. Wouldn't you rather speak to someone who knows what's happening? What about in a crisis? Voice is something closely connected with leadership, with personality, with experience and maturity. We want to talk to people who know.
That's not what's happening in most organisations. With leaders fearful of making decisions that would result in a more porous wall between the inside and the outside of the organisation, it doesn't look likely to change much in the near future either. What's the one thing that could take decision makers through the process of losing fears that are mostly based on false assumptions? Having an experience of being a person online. Why don't they? Because their Comms professionals, on one hand, don't effectively challenge false assumptions, and on the other, don't teach the minimal social media skill set, but a set of skills relevant to their own profession.
'Minimal' doesn't mean 'easy'. These are skills that are the basis of a great online identity and confident online voice, one the owner is fully connected with. This is the feeling of being connected through technology just as strongly as with people in the same room. These skills need to be adopted with good guidance - most people can learn them in a matter of weeks (given basic technological abilities), using immersive learning methods, as opposed to classroom-style learning. Everyone should do this, especially leaders. Without personal experience and knowledge, there won't be better decisions on social media use, and we'll all stick to outdated approaches. 'It's just another channel. It doesn't matter, and it won't change anything.'
As communications professionals we are often in a position to advise others on their online voice. We are trained to think that we can handle it better than them. Unlearning this and instead learning to enable others to adopt the skills required to interact with people through technology is not easy.
Should we talk more about transferring social media skills starting with a minimal skill set? I've written a book about it. Talk to me on Twitter @the_anke.
Anke Holst is a social media consultant and trainer.