Stepping into social media

'The truth is, people already are talking about your company'

The rapid rise of new communications tools and channels has created a sort of corporate peer pressure to get in the game — including for CEOs and other leadership figures. (By the way, are you on Vine yet?) It’s tempting to be a communications wallflower and stick to your knitting while waiting for the latest fad to blow over.

But that could be a costly mistake — both in terms of public perception now and your ability to recruit top talent in the future.

“It’s hard to overstate how social media has reset expectations with communications. People expect dialog and discussion,” says David Jarrard, president and CEO of Maryland Farms-based health care public affairs firm Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock. “Some people think that if they don’t talk, no one else will talk about them. But the truth is, they’re already talking. So the question is not whether you want there to be a conversation about your company. It’s whether you want to join the conversation.”

Leanne Smith, an assistant professor of management with the Lipscomb University College of Business, says that some business leaders, given many are 40 and older and did not come of age during the social media explosion, might fail to effectively use technology-based communication tools. Lack of comfort and understanding are often the reasons.

“I created a blog this past summer and every time I post, I wonder if anything can be misconstrued,” says Smith, who is 47. “Communications is so open to interpretation. That’s the challenge.

Challenges or not, if you value your reputation, you’ll embrace the 21st century communication approach. Here are some pointers to consider:

• Get everyone on board

First off, Jarrard says, establish as a leadership team that you want your company to communicate more and in a different way than before. And be sure to tie your communications strategy to specific business strategies. “Just because” won’t cut it; think hard about what you want to accomplish by stepping out.

In a way, the medium you choose — be it Facebook, Twitter, a CEO blog or an internal bulletin board-type page — is secondary. By committing to opening up the channels of communication, you’re sending a signal that you’re going to engage with your audiences.

And be open to delegating communication responsibilities. You might be a visionary, skilled with budgets and/or a veteran of your industry — while being oblivious to Facebook or weak in question-asking.

“There are a lot of leaders who get to their positions through other areas of skill but who fall short with communications,” Smith says.

• Stay the course

Invest the necessary time as a leader to ensure the success of this project like you would any other important initiative. Be visible yourself where it works and educate your marketing team on your goals.

Only if your vision is translated clearly, regularly and consistently will your messages reach your staff, stockholders and customers in the way you want them to. If there’s discord or if the messages conflict, “that sends a message in itself,” Jarrard says.

• Think in terms of an election

View your internal audience as the engaged voters in a primary election. Win them over before heading to the wider electorate of the outside world and they’ll go to bat for you when you need them.

• Be real and keep out the lawyers

The social mediasphere can sniff out a fake a mile away. Being real is as important to connecting with online audiences as it is to building trust in person. (More on that later.)

“If you can only post to the blog after your compliance department reviews it, don’t blog,” says Jarrard.

So define the tone you want to set with your communications and stick with it. People will come to appreciate and trust that voice over time.

In addition, be aware of how context in an electronic communication can be misconstrued.

“Everybody has their own filters,” Smith says. “I can be in a certain mood and interpret a message today differently than I do tomorrow.”

• Talk matters to talent

Yes, Aunt Betsy now has a Facebook page, on which one of the first things she did was ‘Like’ your company. But chances are the people following you most closely on the Web are younger. And, Jarrard says, if they’re looking for work, they’re much more likely to want “a job that fits them versus a job where they will fit.”

That means online chatter plays a big role in whether that smart database administrator or sharp marketing mind will even consider your job opening. Build a trusted public profile and you’re on the radar. Skew negative and you’ll find yourself missing out on a chunk of the next generation of leaders.

• Face time matters more

The fact that more of our communications these days are electronic has made personal interactions even more important and valuable. So go walk the hallways, take people to lunch or plop down on someone’s couch and ask them how things can be made better.

“It’s easy to get stereotyped as being someone who doesn’t like being around people,” Jarrard says.

And that's not a good recipe for a leader.