are we seeing a social switch in communications?

We're right at the start of learning how social media is changing organisations. But how is it changing communications?

by Matt Bond 

Could the evolving relationship between digital technology and the requirement this is placing on us to become more social as organisations force a change in the way we think about communications?

That is the question I have been pondering of late as a picture emerges that increased social media use - and the fundamental shift this has caused in human behaviour - is stimulating the green shoots of a need for reflective change in how we as organisations communicate with our colleagues, customers and stakeholders. 

I'm convinced this is a fundamental time for communications professionals to grasp this concept and have even come up with a name for it: 'The Social Shift' (I didn't Google this so it's highly likely this has been named elsewhere).

The point, like the name though, has stuck. The Social Shift, I believe, sums up the current movement that requires organisations to become more open and authentic and which will only increase as digital technology become more prolific. This is more than just ensuring the fundamental, 'social' PR principles of People and Place are satisfied in our comms, it's about realising that because we deal day-to-day with human issues, we need to do more to ensure our workplace values reflect this. And, in order to do that, we need to introduce more human elements throughout organisations; from the very top to the very bottom. 

The question is how do we go about it?

While social media is no doubt acting as the catalyst of change, I believe it's now time that we move away from over analysing it as a separate communications channel. Yes, we need to continue to measure and monitor to drive improvement and increase engagement but continued macro analysis is surely only preventing us from looking at the effect of this change in a more general context? 

Take one example of where customers post images onto Facebook, say of council staff parking in restricted bays or having a nap at the wheel of a street sweeper. Currently, we'd accept this as the norm, post a reactive message that hopefully defends the content and move on. But, while the act of capturing and posting the photo is a tangible reality of The Social Shift, the question I'm keen to explore and answer is: would the employees have done that in the first place if they'd been made more aware of the potential for someone to take their photo and then share it?

So, while social media provides a user-friendly tool to aid The Social Shift, it's hard to disagree that it will be tech hardware that is going to play the next major role in driving the agenda forward, and perhaps forcing even greater change. The growing use of smartphones and tablets has forced us to rethink our own openness and engagement agenda, from talking to residents via social media in contact centres to the filming of council meetings. ('Forced' is used purposefully. Imagine a world where, instead of being reactive to changes in tech and social channels, we could start being more pro-active on our communications evolution?)

A current example of the potential of technology to affect such major change is Google Glass, due to hit the shelves in 2014. Who in your organisation has given thought to the soon-to-be-realised impact of this tool, especially on the issue of privacy? Google Glass will perhaps signify one of the biggest shifts in technology to affect social change, especially for public facing organisations. Anyone will soon be able to record, film, or photograph at leisure and, with in-built facial recognition, upload and link that content anywhere on the web and all of it almost instantaneously.

If you haven't thought much about its capabilities yet, this short film from Google may help:

Some commentators have even suggested that the next, large public disorder events will be around privacy, started initially by such immediate forms of technology as Google Glass. 

Techradar has an interesting article  to in which it identifies that in 2007 the Institute of the Future called this the "participatory panopticon", and in 2009 award-winning author and futurist David Brin explained what that might mean:

"With our senses and memories enhanced prodigiously by new prostheses, suddenly we can 'know' the reputations of millions, soon to be billions, of fellow Earth citizens.

"It’s seriously scary prospect and one that is utterly unavoidable. The cities we grew up in were semi-anonymous only because they were primitive. The village is returning. And with it serious, lifelong worry about that state of our reputations. Kids who do not know this are playing with fire. They had better hope that the village will be a nice one. A village that shrugs a lot, and forgives."

"A tap of your VR eyeglasses will identify any person, along with profiles and alerts, almost as if you had been gossiping about him and her for years. 

So, where does this leave us as communications professionals in an increasingly more open and socially orientated world? 

Firstly, if we're not already doing so, we need to evolve our awareness of the technology beyond day-to-day measurement of specific channels. Both in software and hardware terms, we need to learn and assess what the impacts of these are now, and are likely to be, into the future. 

As the social shift continues apace, as the 'world community' continues to link together and increasingly knows more about everybody else's 'business' we need to get a much better handle on how we as organisations are going to adapt to keep (or get ahead of) the pace of change. We need to ensure we don't become too insular (particularly while dealing with very internal and very real budget pressures) and continue to horizon scan and react to our findings.

Practically speaking, internal training, or awareness raising, for employees up and down the organisation is one key element, as is the need to start assessing the impact now of how technology such as Google Glass may impact upon our organisations and to start embedding this culture change into the organisation now.  

The comms world as we knew it is changing, thanks largely to social media, smartphones and mobile devices and as we’ve seen, with Google Glass and other similar immediate technologies it will doubtless change again. Transparency, ownership, learning and collaboration are some core elements of human organisations and as the world becomes more like a global village, people will expect our organisations to reflect these values too. 

What I've learnt so far on my discovery is that we must all learn fast, adapt and start integrating these values into our organisations and I'd urge you, if you're not already, to set off on your own journey of discovery and start planning for The Social Shift, before you're forced too. 

Matt Bond is communications specialist at Cornwall Council.

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