Last night I attended the Third Tuesday Ottawa meetup for the first time. It was a great event, with excellent speakers. I highly recommend it for anyone in the Ottawa area interested in social media and networking with like-minded people. The discussion was entitled “Shiny Object Syndrome” and the intent was to explore social media tools – what’s working, what’s not, what’s the next big thing, etc.

However (as is often the case at these types of forums), the discussion ended up being not so much about the tools, but about the impact they are or are not having on corporate and government communications. It seems these days, the question du jour is – how do I get my Boss/Director/High Ranking Bureaucrat to understand social media and advocate its use in my organization?

That makes me think…is it possible we are trying to force social media into a space where it doesn’t belong? Are we trying to push a solution onto a problem without really understanding what it could solve?

By sheer coincidence (or fate, as I tend to believe in cases like this), one of my former Senior Managers was in attendance at last night’s Third Tuesday. It was extraordinary to see him at an event like this, because after the high tech bust he got out of the business altogether. But there he was.

Back in the day when we both worked for “Giant Corporation”, my boss used to gather our team in his office for what resembled a daily sermon. One of the things he often talked about was whether or not the solutions we were providing to “Giant Corporation’s” business problems were the right solutions or if we were “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole”. His point being, even though we worked for a technology company, throwing technology at a problem was not always the best solution.

These days, it seems to me that some (certainly not all!) communicators think that throwing the latest new fangled social media tool into an organization is going to help solve problems these organizations have with marketing, communications and PR. “If we tell our customers and employees to get on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and FriendFeed and so on…they will understand us better.”

The truth is, the next FriendFaceTwitterTube is not going to make organizations communicate better. All the Twittering in the world is not going to make employees adapt to a new business process, and setting up a Facebook group is not going to soften the impact of massive layoffs. Spending money and resources to produce a fancy marketing to post on YouTube in the hopes it will go viral is not going to close more sales. In these cases, the solution doesn’t suit the problem.

Now you may argue, “But yes! Social media is the answer! I use Twitter to communicate all the time! My Facebook and LinkedIn networks are powerful! My blog gives me a voice inside of my faceless organization! Think of all we can accomplish by getting everyone connected on these tools! It’s about personal communications!”

The problem with social media is it’s intensely personal. And most corporations and governments are not set up for personal communications. They are structured in a top down fashion with sets of checks and balances that ensure that information is funneled and filtered and controlled through the right channels. And with good reason.

When I worked for “Giant Corporation”, we were strictly prohibited to speak to anyone from the media about what was happening in the company, good or bad. If blogging had been prevalent back then I’m sure we’d have been prohibited from doing that too. They told us they could take legal action if we were caught talking to media or publishing any sort of information about the company. Why? Because it’s a public company and when shareholders are involved, information MUST be controlled, or the shareholders can get antsy and that is not good for the stock price. Bottom line.

Transfer the same philosophy over to government, and it’s a similar situation. Someone says the wrong thing to a reporter (or posts on their blog, or Twitter, or Facebook page) and boom! Scandal.

I’m not saying that the way corporations and governments communicate is perfect by any stretch. But, social media tools, by their very nature of being for the people, by the people, are a square peg in this environment. Frankly, these tools do not necessarily fit in the round hole of corporate and government communications. In order for it to work, the traditional model and culture of corporate communications must be burst wide open and I can’t see that happening any time soon.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a HUGE proponent of social media and all of the amazing possibilities it holds. I think it is a tremendous marketing, communications and PR tool for small and medium sized enterprises as well as non-profit organizations. Every day I move forward in some way in my own business as a result of social media and the marvelous network I have been able to develop in the past few years.

What I am against is forcing a solution into an organization just because it is cool and hip and trendy, without giving serious thought to the ramifications of implementing it.

(Thanks to the lovely and talented @G_reg for contributing his insights and helping my poor worn out brain to edit this post tonight. I couldn’t have done it without him!)