Is Social Media a Square Peg in a Round Hole?

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!)
On Passion and Success
Things My Mom Has Taught Me About Social Media


  • May 7, 2008 at 11:54 am

    Excellent post! I often compare Social Media to the web industry’s fascination with Flash a few years ago. It didn’t matter if Audio/Visual was needed to effectively communicate and market the product/service – a Flash splash page was in order regardless.

    Social Media is one tool out of many available that can help eMarketers and Communicators build and reinforce messaging. Adopting technology for the sake of technology – or shiny object fascination – is never the right way to go in and of itself. Solution-based approaches will always reap the highest returns and provide the most value in the long run.

  • May 7, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Excellent post. Well said! I think Social Media is still something people are unsure of and it will a little while longer before everyone – or at least the majority of people – agree on what works and what doesn’t.

  • May 7, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Good post! I think you hit the nail on the head there.
    I believe there is a place for social networking or anything “2.0” in the enterprise or the government. Two things we need to consider are what people need, and how people communicate. If we look at the new “y” generation, they are not communicating with email anymore, it’s “has been” already, quite surprising for someone of my generation (not even 40) who has seen the raise of email communication over snail mail and phone, and will soon see the fall of this media. So, I guess enterprises need to revisit how they let their employees communicate, as the next generation of employees won’t use emails so much but will likely use anything close to what social networking is today or will be tomorrow. The big question is, and you’ve highlighted this very well in your post, how will these enterprise control, secure and retain this new communication media. Then, what people need is probably an even more complex question, but certainly, they are overwhelmed by a tremendous amount of information surrounding them in various (and independents = not talking to each others) systems, and they want to make a better use of this. So search, interoperability and integration, retention and archiving of information, all that will also need to be included in the equation…
    Then, I might not be able to tell more as my current “Giant Corp” probably doesn’t allow me to do so 😉

  • May 7, 2008 at 2:49 pm

    I also enjoyed the Meetup and agree with Kristina Mausser’s comments and the spirit of Sue’s post. A communicator’s ‘shiny object fascination’ is akin to what Seth Godin calls a ‘meatball sundae’ in his latest book of the same name.

    I work for a company that develops online social technologies. I like to say that the biggest compliment we can receive is that our products ‘don’t get in the way.’ At the end of the day, we develop and sell tools that help people connect, communicate and collaborate. Our products are not necessarily the cool, new thing out there that our customers should focus on. Instead, the ‘cool’ thing is that our products enable our customers and their stakeholders to solve customer service problems, build better products, communicate more effectively, etc. Our software tools are tactics and are most effective when they are used for the right reasons (strategies). We all will do better to not, as Godin would say, mix meatballs with sundaes.

  • May 7, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    Hi Sue,
    I would add one nuance to the answers to your question “is it possible we are trying to force social media into a space where it doesn’t belong?” As far as the federal government is concerned, the answer is a resounding “no” and one need only check out the objectives listed in the federal goverment communications policy to see why government is a space in which social media does belong. The policy has 10 objectives but the crucial one is #6: Consult the public, listen to and take account of people’s interests and concerns when establishing priorities, developing policies, and planning programs and services.
    Social media offer a variety of tools to help the government do this way better: the challenge is recommending the appropriate tools.

  • May 10, 2008 at 6:56 am

    I’m working on this right now, and firmly believe that corporations can use social networking tools/software, as long as they don’t try to be ‘hip’. I see these things as a way for colleagues to collaborate in a post-email era. Now that everyone is self-employed, or looking to be (!) the links in your personal network are almost certain to be stronger than your work ones. But if you can’t leverage your work contacts, you’ll never break free – it’s a Catch-22. Something like twitter built into an enterprise system like RIM’s BlackBerry server is the way I see it working out.

  • May 18, 2008 at 6:05 am

    Great post. Well said. I agree… government and big conglomerates have bigger challenges with social media based on their infrastructure, having worked on the “big brand” side of the fence myself. It would be nice to see more organizations participate as it is a great venue for audiences to contribute to and learn about important and emerging issues and opportunities.

    Deanna White

  • May 25, 2008 at 12:44 pm

    I agree that, right now, there is the perception of the square peg in a round hole when it comes to social media/Web 2.0 and the government. But in the U.S., for example, the government has operated in the same top-down fashion for 200+ years. But I can tell you that there’s not just a few people in the government that want to move the government into social media, and REALLY participate in it directly. There are fully organized groups with the backing of GSA, to help move the government world into a more social one. As I mentioned in my post, and that you commented on, it’s going to take a long time to happen…but not as long as many think. Because there’s such a big push for it and a younger generation of people are entering the workforce and looking for these types of tools in the government work space, the government is being forced just by the very nature of change to move more into the social media world. If you organization is not keeping up with the times and the way that society and socialization is being revamped, then you’ll never attract the workforce you need. You also won’t be able to communicate to the citizens in the way they expect you too. That’s the problem that U.S government, Canadian, and many, many other governments are facing. So they have to change, and they will, much faster than they probably want to. Because of that, I think you will see government “burst wide open” and they’ll finally be propelled into the current times rather than always being a decade, or two, behind. Great post Suzemuse!



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