All Aboard Social Media: Or, Why You Shouldn’t Stand In Front of a Moving Train With a STOP Sign

Everyone is abuzz about the Marines’ order “banning” social media use at work, but it has truly been been mischaracterized. The reality is, the Marines always had that ban in place: "Even before this message, sites such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter could not be accessed by Marines using the Marine Corps Enterprise Network in accordance with Marine Corps and Department of the Navy policies."

The truth is quite the opposite of the headlines. The order was intended to promote the appropriate use of social media at work by institutionalizing a process to request a waiver for those who need access: “The point of the directive is to establish a formal waiver process for those who require access to social networking sites.”

The level of the reporting was so out of tune with what the Marines was actually doing that they actually had to issue a statement endorsing social media use: “Marines are encouraged to tell their stories on social networking sites, using personal accounts, remembering the importance of operational security and that they are Marines at all times. “

What’s Really Going On?

It seems to me that there was a certain desire to characterize the Marines as being against social media because there was a wish to pander to the fear and ignorance of many who would just as soon bury it, and also to provoke those who take just the opposite point of view and are enraged that anyone would deny them access to the tools they use all the time.

If you read the news, that controversy is very real, and raging every day. Organizations in both the private and the public sector are up in arms about social media. They can’t deal with the fact that they no longer control the message, but rather they are subject at all times to commentary, both positive and negative, by people ranging from the credible to the ridiculous, both inside the workplace and out. More than that, there is a lot of consternation around the fact that you have to monitor even the tiniest blogs and the most remote YouTube videos to find out what people are saying about you, because you never know where the next reputation crisis might come from. It’s not just a few newspapers or trade magazines that make or break you.

Branding and Social Media

As a brand specialist for many years, I have to say that I saw this whole storm coming. It seemed to me pretty obvious that the wish organizations had to control the message and the brand was going to clash fairly strongly with the reality that transparency could undermine everything they were saying. This article from says it all: “More transparency could kill IT projects.” It’s more than just IT – these days with everybody watching you, and with everybody empowered to talk about what they see, your entire brand is subject to their perceptions.

And then one day I realized that with just a little strategic thinking, smart organizations could leverage the new world of social media to make their brands even stronger. As Coca Cola head of social media Adam Brown told The Wall Street Journal August 3, “We’re getting to a point if you’re not responding, you’re not being seen as an authentic type of brand.”

The savviest organizations don’t try to control the conversation, but rather simply to participate in it as a trusted and real friend.

Frightened Holdouts

Unfortunately, many organizations are not there yet. We see this in the Associated Press’ new rule that employees must remove from their Facebook accounts comments that are deemed offensive by the AP:

“It's a good idea to monitor your profile page to make sure material posted by others doesn't violate AP standards; any such material should be deleted.”

We also see it in the controversy over ESPN’s new social media rules regulating employees’ personal Tweets. Extremely interesting is the following directive, since presumably people who work for ESPN are sports fanatics:

“Personal websites and blogs that contain sports content are not permitted.”

Fear-Mongering as a Tactic

Here is my perspective.

Trying to stop the honest conversations that take place in social media, inside and outside the workplace, is like trying to stop an oncoming train - life-threatening and impossible. Yet there are people who, for whatever reason, stand in front of this train waving a “STOP” sign. They are used to horses and buggies, they don’t like how trains look, and they don’t want people who understand trains to take over the world and push them aside. So they issue anti-train directives like,


Isn’t that what the Marines’ order sounds like?


Actually, this kind of negative language might be why the Marines order was misinterpreted.

A Typical Pseudo-Argument

One of the things I read recently was that social media is distinguished by its “active content.” I’m not a technical expert and would like to hear if I’m wrong, but I don’t see how the “active content” on a social media website is any different than that on a standard website you might visit that is actually poisoned. Do numerous sites not have

“Internet polls or opt-in features, or dynamic, such as animated GIFs, stock tickers, weather maps, JavaScript applications, embedded objects, streaming video and audio or ActiveX applications”?

Bottom line is, you don’t need a tracking report to tell you that employees will at times, whether innocently or deliberately, visit bad sites and end up on pages full of trouble. And they did so before social media ever came on the scene.

Moreover, I don’t see any great move afoot to deny people access to email at work, and people receive phony spam emails all the time with bad links. You have to train people not to fall for the typical scams, and also be ready in case they do.

If we tried to block every online danger, we’d have to disable the Internet entirely.

The Risks are Human, Not Technological

In my mind, the reasons given by the Marines for banning social media at work are not necessarily incorrect. It is true that people who use Facebook at work could reveal operational information that they shouldn’t on Facebook (“information exposure”); click on a bad link in a hijacked Tweet (“user generated content”); or befriend an enemy agent on LinkedIn, thus exposing a host of professional contacts who should be kept confidential (“targeting by adversaries.”)

However, unless I am understanding the Marines’ language incorrectly and the risks are other than these things, all of these risks are **human** and not inherently technological.

So here are the real reasons I think organizations ban social media:

1. Fear: They don’t want to understand the new technology in the first place (“What the heck is a train?”)

2. Ignorance: They don’t see the business need (“Horses get you around just fine”) nor do they understand the technology or its risks sufficiently to train people in how to use it appropriately

3. Mistrust: They don’t trust people to use it the right way (“They will just sit around playing cards on the train, but they’ll really have to work to get somewhere if they’re riding a horse!”)

4. They just don’t think much of their people (no other way to say this): They think people will just click on any link, say anything to anyone on any topic, or befriend people online indiscriminately (“You know how people are…they’ll stand too close to the train tracks and get hit.”)

5. Economics: Money is tight and they don’t want to waste it on building safeguards for social media, or on training people to use it

Clearing the Cobwebs

Even if the above reasons are semi-legitimate, they also mask deeper psycho-organizational blockages that disappear once you get them into the light and discuss them openly.

The fear and ignorance issues simply have to do with organizational culture and leadership. There needs to be someone in charge who understands the value that social media brings and who insists that it be used in productive ways.

Either that, or frontline employees themselves must initiate grassroots demand to the point where leaders can’t ignore the pressing need.

One has to get over the mistrust about productivity. While it is true that employees will probably spend time playing around on Facebook, they are already chatting in the hallways or on the phone, spending too much time at lunch and on breaks, and on and on. You have to monitor your people and also keep them engaged enough so that they don’t want or need to goof off.

Also, it is important to recognize the obvious fact that people are not machines and need some downtime. Anyway, there is sufficient technology out there to track employees’ online behavior to see if they’re being excessive.

One also has to get over the condescension about how easily people will misuse the technology and take an appropriate level of responsibility for helping them. The people who work for you are not stupid, or else you wouldn’t have hired them, right? People also have a certain level of protective mechanisms so that they are cautious about who they “friend” online, what they say, etc.

And if the company has a good understanding of the typical risks associated with social media, it can train employees to be even more sophisticated about what they do online.

The fact of the matter is, these same people are going home and using social media on their home computers, and probably talking about where they work as well. You may as well train them to do so responsibly than finding out later that they really did say something stupid.

A Word About Money

Honestly, I don’t have patience for the argument that there is no money for things associated with social media when it has so permeated our lives as a productivity tool – and is no longer a fringe thing or a kids’ toy. In fact, the most recent numbers on Twitter usage suggest that the greatest growth is not among teens at all but rather that it is exploding in use among adults age 25-64.

In the year 2009, just like it is taken for granted that we pay for antivirus and firewall software to protect our work computers, so too it should be taken for granted that we take appropriate steps to prepare and defend against misuse of social media, intentional or not.

In The End, It’s About Leadership, Culture – and Self-Empowerment

The bottom line is, organizations’ approach to social media says a lot more about their culture and leadership than it does about technology risk. Great organizations understand that change is a constant reality and that technology both enables this and is a driver of it. So they embrace innovation when it suits their business needs, and they have a logical approach toward evaluating and implementing it so as to reap maximum benefit. On the other hand, those companies who stand in front of the train, waving their arms, screaming “no, no, no” are the ones who will be flattened.

In the end, though, the power is in our hands, not anybody else’s. We as members of organizations can either be the change that we seek, or we can wait and wait for somebody to magically tell us that the future is here – a day that may never come.

Particularly in government, which we must never forget is a sacred stewardship of the public’s trust, it is nothing less than an obligation on our part to embrace every possible means to serve the public better, faster, and cheaper than anyone has ever thought possible.

I say, let’s all get on board, and take the public somewhere great.