Where Does Social Media Fit With Brand Culture?

by Heather Rast |

Creating and maintaining the right culture is essential for sustainable business. Probably more so today, given our access to tools and technology, and ever-increasing adoption. Zappos, Askinose Chocolate, Tom’s Shoes, and Land’s End are just a few of the brands recognized for centering entire company operations – from product to policy – around a set of carefully chosen values. Those values are the structural basis of every decision, action, or passive outcome that comes after.

These brand values – brought to life as deeds and messages – begets culture. When values flex and bow, culture is weakened. And the brand becomes fuzzy, internally and externally. Toss on some social media and you’ve got a heck of an operational and communications failure.

Cultural Failure In Social Media

I found some old documents while cleaning out files over the holiday. Mixed among the notes and “atta girl!” slips was a reprimand for ostensibly “disclosing company information” via Twitter way back in 2007 or ’08.

Security key codes? Hires or departures? Grumblings about coworkers? Nope, wasn’t me.

The information disclosed (term I’m using loosely) was along the lines of “Just met with a client to talk about plans for a new SEO project. Woot!” And it was narrowcast to all of my 12 Twitter friends. Not exactly on the same level as the Chrysler faux pas of earlier this year, eh?

Clearly the suits at that company believed employees should be buttoned up, polished. Discrete. Work should be done and not discussed, least of all in public venues.

Was there a disconnect between our two value systems? Not necessarily. The suits and I both believed in doing great web things for clients of the company.

Was there a disconnect in how those values should manifest into employee code of conduct? So it seemed. I thought I was showing my support for the company and team. They thought I was sharing proprietary stuff.

To say the culture shifted after that fracas depends on your point of view. To the corporate communications and executives, the “forward-thinking innovator” brand attributes remained part of the company’s standard language library. To the rank-and-file, that stuff started feeling more like just stuff the company said, but didn’t know how to actually live. A web tech company that cut employees off from social media? Huh?

Deeds and messages weren’t lined up.

It wasn’t until later that I realized the real issue wasn’t my rah-rah tweet. It didn’t lead to a client beat-down. The real issue stemmed from others’ fear of unchartered waters, questions of ownership, priorities that didn’t include transparency, and much more. Social media gave those everyday issues a spotlight and a stage.

Cause And Effect In Social Media

Social Media Fishbone Diagram - Heather Rast

Looking at cause-and-effect in social media shouldn’t end with deciding whether Twitter is an appropriate, scalable venue for customer service. It shouldn’t end with a protocol for Facebook page administration or even a crisis communication plan (all important things, mind you).

I’m not sure where it ends. Or, in light of the speed with which tech geeks dream up new stuff and Google consumes the planet, if it even ends.

But I do know when we stop to think about social media adoption by business, we need to think about the values and culture aspects as much as the functional, strategic, and execution aspects. We need to ask not only how might customers or prospects process our status updates or blog posts, but also how employees perceive the activity (does it jibe with their experience? Is it infused throughout?) as well as how those perceptions shape their behavior.

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About the Author

Heather Rast

Heather is Principal of a boutique Cedar Rapids digital marketing company. She develops brand positioning strategy and marketing communications plans to distinguish small businesses from the competition and attract their ideal customers. Her content planning, writing, and online community-building work helps larger businesses better serve their audiences with useful information that solves problems as it builds affinity for the brand.