When does “corporate governance” help or hurt social media strategy?

Often "corporate governance" is code for "we don't want to change"

I recently had a comment from a reader scoffing at the idea of enabling employees through a “social enterprise” strategy because it ignores the best practices of corporate governance. In other words, the legal department should keep a tight reign on corporate communications.

First let me give you my historical relationship with corporate governance:

1) I have worked with large corporations for 30 years and truly recognize the legitimate place of governance.

2) I am a fan of lawyers. Anybody who has a job to keep me out of jail is cool with me.

3) I recognize many examples where strict rules of engagement with the public are necessary, especially in a regulated environment.

Having said that, many times when executives use an excuse of “corporate governance policies” to reject a social media plan for their company, they are really saying — “I want to hide behind a policy and hope this whole thing blows over.”

Hiding behind company policies to justify inaction is a tried-and-true strategy. I’ve seen it with HR policies, quality policies, and environmental policies. Using communication policies and social media as an excuse for inaction is just the next in line for people who make a living keeping their head in the sand.

Hiding behind policies is an excuse to not change

There is a fine line between true governance and hiding behind anachronistic policies because of a fear of change, which is usually the true nature of the resistance.

I grew up in a world where there was one company “spokesperson” and you could get fired for stepping over that line. I am not dismissing the need for governance when it comes to the SEC, IRS, and when there is a reporter at the door from 60 Minutes.

However, let’s look at an example I wrote about recently, where a salesperson from a huge company attracted $47 mm in new business completely through using social networking tools. One of the reasons he won this business is because his competitors were restrained from using these same tools due to “governance.” In this case, is governance helping, or is it so far behind the times that the company is at a competitive disadvantage?

In my experience, more often than not, companies are hiding behind policies written in the 1970s without considering the current competitive environment.

“Our employees are idiots”

In one of my classes, a student from a regulated industry said he could not even have a LinkedIn profile because of his wealth management company’s communication policy.

“Do they let you attend community networking events?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“Do the lawyers give you a scrip?,” I said.

“No, of course not,” he chuckled.

“Then what’s the difference? If you are not allowed to network online you are being asked to compete with a 1980s toolkit. The real issue is that they are afraid of change and they don’t trust their employees. Your company social media policy is ‘our employees are idiots’.”

He laughed and agreed with my point.

In many companies the real obstacle to success on the social web isn’t a lack of direction or budget or resources. It is a fear of change.


Illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and Diane Turner

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