Does Social Media Give Us the "Trojan Horse" to Fix Corporate Communication?

Earlier this summer, I published a piece here at Fast Company about how, as organizations more fundamentally grapple with how to tackle social media, companies will have to create fundamental new structure and strategy rather than rely on the "one-off" fashion with which they addressed their digital communication presence in the past. At the time, I made the comment that "the need for an integrated response to digital communication may provide the 'Trojan horse' for a more fundamental rewiring of the communication of corporations." This is an issue that I've found weighing even more heavily on my mind of late.

So, I want to return to my earlier statement and revise it: internal communication disconnects are the most substantial roadblock on the path to making brands more dynamic, more responsive, and more open in their communication. And I think the conversations we have about who "owns" digital communication and how its structure may create the best excuse we've had in a long time to fix the internal communication errors that create mass inefficiencies for most organizations.

Too often, internal corporate communication can look a little too much like the story of the "Tower of Babel": a group of people working toward a common goal (in this case, building a brand rather than a tower) who can't coordinate because they don't speak the same language. In the corporate world, most frustrating of all is the fact that everyone brings a different logic to the table with how to deal with the end audience. As we've seen all too often, advertising is tasked with a big splash to get a reaction from potential customers. Corporate communication is tasked with building a relationship with that customer, or at least their influencers. And customer service is tasked with making engagement as brief as possible, with how to disengage quickly.

To the target audience, all these divisions are the same brand. But, internally, they sit on different floors...or different campuses. They meet rarely or perhaps even never. Or, if they do work together, they have much different philosophies, logics, and sets of jargon about that audience and their work.

I had the great opportunity to meet with the research committee for CTAM—the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing—a few weeks ago. The research group is comprised of leading researchers across a variety of cable channels and cable service providers. And, in the process of being a marketing and communication guy talking to a research group about social media, we opened up a frank discussion about the differing logics of marketing and research but likewise the importance of the two groups to work together. It can be a challenge, not because marketing is "right" and research "wrong," or vice versa, but because the two groups approach interaction with audiences for much different purposes.

In our conversation, we ultimately agreed that the key to success—and the success stories we heard—come from sharing, finding a common language, developing a common understanding of each group's goals, and thinking about the residual impact a planned initiative might have for other departments. In the process, research often finds ways in which it can further help meet the goals of marketing and marketing can find ways to making the projects they have planned more useful from a research standpoint.

But, to return to my earlier statement, this is the most fundamental challenge companies have in being better external communicators. Shifting corporate logic is not easy. And, to be honest, these are the same sorts of issues companies have been talking about and consultants have been harping on for decades.

To return to the statement I started this piece with, I said earlier—perhaps as a throwaway remark—that social media might be the "Trojan horse" that brings with it the great opportunity yet to bring change to internal communication at organizations. As I spend more time considering it, I am increasingly convinced that capitalizing on this potential is crucial. More than any media development that has come along in decades, digital communication requires an interactive approach. As Ithiel de Sola Pool argued in Technologies of Freedom more than 25 years ago from a regulatory standpoint, the Internet is a platform for broadcasting, for carrying one-on-one conversation, and for publishing—and that combined function means merging what had been very distinct logics.

Is corporate America up for the challenge? As social media requires us to come together, will we use that time to just solve the one-off question of how we deal with digital communication, or might we use this pressing question as a way to tackle the underlying questions that have plagued organizational communication for decades?

I hope that we're up for the challenge, but it's going to take the concerted effort of many of us. Luckily, as with the smart CTAM researchers I found myself in the company of a few weeks ago, I've found a variety of professional quite willing to discuss the issue. People like the Dachis Corporation's Peter Kim and Thomson Reuters' Jaime Punishill have been thinking, writing, and speaking on these issues for some time. At the moment, Peter, Jaime, and I have proposed a panel for next year's South by Southwest Interactive on just this subject, entitled "Social Media: Trojan Horse for Healing Corporate Infrastructure?" Should the panel get accepted and you happen to be in Austin next year for the conference, we hope you'll come by and join us to further hash out what needs to be done. But this a discussion that doesn't need delay, so I'd love to hear what others think as well: how can we use digital communication discussions to bridge the corporate divides we've created in the process of infrastructure-building?

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

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