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A computer grab taken January 31 2007, shows the offices of Edelman PR in virtual world Second Life.


The social media revolution – the phenomenon that has my mother friend-ing me on Facebook and asking me what "following on Twitter" means – is more about society than it is about media. In a similar way, the differences in the ways small businesses and big enterprises engage social media are more about social structure and organizational dynamics than they are about media tactics.

Social media is fundamentally a shift in the culture and the expectations of how people consume and, more importantly, participate in media. In a world where communications must contend with an audience that expects an opportunity to engage, expects that an organization will listen and converse, and expect people's voices to be amplified as loud or louder than those of media outlets, how we communicate is fundamentally different from the broadcast-driven, one-way silos we grew to accept over the latter part of the 20th century.

Social media forces organizations to reconsider not just where, when, and how they communicate, but why. We tend to get caught up in discussions about platforms and tactics. We argue over questions like "should I be on Twitter?" or "does my CEO need to be writing a blog?" or "how should we be using Facebook?" But we need to ask "why" first.

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This will drive us to question who we are as an organization and what our purpose is.

The business school definition of corporations – entities that exist to maximize shareholder value – is no longer a sufficient framework for driving organizational strategy and it is definitely not an effective communications strategy. If we believe that social behaviours in media have altered the expectations of the people with whom we want and need to communicate, are we willing to participate with them, and do we genuinely believe in the value and power of that engagement?

If the answer to those questions is yes, and we have spent time thinking about the values and missions of our organizations and the role of communities in driving our goals, we can start asking how leveraging social media platforms and programs can help us engage the communities – internal and external, big and small – that are essential to our success.

As companies of all sizes pose these questions, the biggest differences in the answers they find lay in the social structures at play in the organizations. In order to engage in social spaces, businesses must be prepared to engage in more open dialogue about themselves, their products, and sometimes their competition than they are typically used to. They will absolutely be forced to collaborate more efficiently internally than most of them have ever even attempted.

A person asking a question of your organization on your Facebook wall doesn't care about your org chart. My mother isn't going to hunt through your sitemap to track down the right expert on her problem – if I'm lucky she'll try to ask you instead of calling me. She doesn't care that the marketing department manages the Facebook presence, or that there is an entirely separate process she is supposed to follow to solve her problem. She has a question, she's asked you, and it's up to you to find ways to collaborate within your organization to connect the marketing departments and customer service group to answer her – if you want to keep her as a customer.

In this way, big enterprises often find social media engagement more internally disruptive than more agile smaller organizations – especially as they take their first steps.

The second reality of social media engagement is that for organizations used to the 20th century media landscape of silos and one-way communications, they more than likely lack some of the subject-area expertise and tactical understanding required to execute digital communications and social media effectively. In small organizations where employees often wear multiple hats and function in multiple roles, expanding into an entirely new area of expertise on top of existing tasks can be daunting at best and impossible at worst.

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Big enterprises that have and can expand specialized employees more readily may be able extend their internal capabilities more quickly. Additionally, they can often lean on outside agencies for expertise and strategic guidance, training, and consulting to ease the internal evolution required to align with the new realities of social media engagement.

Social media can help any organization create more meaningful relationships with the communities around them – employees, customers and partners. Fundamentally it isn't about size of audience or opportunity, it's really about what social media does to a company and what the organization is capable of that defines the different challenges. Engagement is always about a willingness to listen, telling compelling and authentic stories, and a genuine desire to participate.

In the end the essential understanding is that participating in social spaces is about being more engaged, not appearing more engaged.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Michael Slaby is executive vice president at Edelman and global practice chair of the firm's Digital practice. Before joining Edelman, Mr. Slaby was technology director for the Obama Presidential Transition Team, chief technology officer for "Obama for America," and deputy new media director for the campaign.

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