What’s Your Social Role: Are You a “Susan” or a “Michael?”

First published October 14, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I had actually written another column for today, but as I was putting the finishing touches on it, my friend Karl came into my office for a scheduled meeting and, in passing, dropped the following observation about a client (names have been changed to protect the innocent): “I was talking to Susan, the person who’s in charge of their social media, but I’m not exactly sure what she does.  One of their tech guys, Michael, is the person who actually set up their Facebook page and Twitter account.”

Pinning down Porridge

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with the corporate approach to social media. We’re trying to apply the same old corporate reasoning to something that defies reason. Not only does it defy it, it seeps past it, sprouts up in unexpected places and doesn’t tend to stay put when you try to jam it in a pigeonhole. Trying to contain social media within a corporate org chart is kind of like trying to pin porridge to a bulletin board.

Within every organization, there is a mix of personalities. There are those who make the rules, those who follow the rules and a few who break the rules. Similarly, there are those with something to say, those who are content to listen and those who will carefully consider what to say before they open their mouth. Most companies try to recruit a candidate from the last camp to act as a gatekeeper for social media. It’s safer — theoretically, anyway.

Don’t Control. Do!

But here’s the thing with social media. It’s not about controlling, it’s about doing. It’s about talking, listening and responding. It’s about rolling up your sleeves and getting in there. If you don’t do that, you’ll become “Susan,” a person who has a title but isn’t really in charge of anything, because it’s happening all around her, thanks to the “Michaels” of the world. Social media just happens, in spite of the best-laid plans of legal and corporate governance. Trying to control it is like trying to squelch a rumor or juicy gossip. Just ask Eliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods or Jesse James how well that worked out for them.

And if you think it’s difficult controlling this now, just wait until the fresh crop of millennials become fully entrenched in their jobs. For them, social media is mother’s milk. They don’t see it as something to be controlled or channeled. They regard it the same way a fish regards water – it’s just there. And they don’t have the same lines of delineation between their work lives and private lives that we do. There will be more and more “Michaels,” those who actively participate in social because it’s part of their world. And there will be fewer and fewer “Susans,” because sooner or later we’ll realize the futility of the role.

The Rise of Open Leadership

Charlene Li sees this as a breath of fresh air blowing through the stuffy halls of corporate America, forcing more transparency and authenticity and leading to “Open Leadership.” “Michaels” have a way of blowing the lid off of carefully spun corporate communications, exposing the unvarnished truth that lies beneath.

So, the question coming from the C-Suite is, “How do you control Michaels? How do you make sure they don’t say something stupid or, even worse, damaging?” Well, you can’t. It will happen. Just the same way that oil spills, product recalls and accounting scandals happen.

But here’s something to think about. If you’re scared to give your employees a voice, you don’t have a social media problem. Your problem is much, much bigger than that. And all the Susan’s in the world aren’t going to help you.


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