Trust and living at the speed of social media


Does your organizational approval process move at the speed of social media?

If not, why not?

Likely each of us has had occasion to marvel at the speed with which news travels online. Watching heat maps of Twitter activity looks eerily like MRI scans of synapses firing in the human brain.

We know that information spreads fast; now we’re trying to understand why. Researchers studying how information becomes viral online have produced some interesting findings. Chief among them is the evidence that social media behavior falls in line with Emotional Contagion Theory (which posits that emotions can travel from person to person like a virus — i.e., that they are contagious).

A recent study of 200,000 users of China’s Sina Weibo (similar to Twitter in the U.S.) found that of all emotions, anger traveled the quickest. It’s not always bad news that travels quickest, however. Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that awe/wonderment traveled faster than anger after an analysis of the sharing patterns of 7,000 New York Times articles. These findings on the emotional motivators were further supported in two high-profile studies of Facebook users.

This research suggests two things:

  • It’s never been a worse time to have bad news circulate about your organization.
  • It’s never been a better time to have good news circulate about your organization.

A timely response, either to counter negative information about your brand or to amplify positive information, will only continue to become more important.

Further, the massive shift in how people get their news (away from the traditional media toward social platforms) means that companies need to more actively participate in the conversation, as we are all increasingly unable to rely on a neutral third party to mediate the arc of a story.

To borrow a metaphor from one of my colleagues — how fast can your organization “metabolize” new information? What is preventing you from being able to respond quickly and effectively when threats or opportunities present themselves?

There are likely two culprits. First, virtually all organizations are structured to be deliberately slow about communicating to encourage contemplation (something that made sense when folded sheaves of paper had to be delivered door-to-door for news to circulate). Admittedly, this is a challenge currently for publicly-traded companies which are bound by fair disclosure laws — but it will change. Second, bureaucrats within your organization have created fiefdoms for themselves — flowcharted shrines to their own egos that demand review/approval on a volume of information they can’t possibly hope to oversee.

Those layers are speed bumps preventing an effective response to both threats and opportunities.

The solution is trust and empowerment. If you lead an organization, you need to trust your people. They need to be able to trust you in return.

There are a few practical steps you can take to improve your organizational reaction time:

  • Free your communicators. Grant them the authority to act immediately in the best interest of the company using their judgment. Back them up when they do. Give them unfettered access to the content experts in your company. Even better — create more communicators by cross-training more people in your organization to share their voice on the company’s behalf (all your employees are brand ambassadors whether or not you want them to be, so equip them for the job).
  • Empower your front-line staff. Keep them informed (abandon the false hope that you can keep bad news a secret), and give them the fiscal authority to make things right with consumers. Moreover, treat them as trusted counsel; they are a better well of information about perceptions of your brand than an expensive marketing study.
  • Cross-pollinate. Force your marketing, advertising and public relations people to regularly tour your organization — even when you don’t have something to promote (ESPECIALLY if you don’t have something to promote). I guarantee they will find fantastic positive stories waiting to be told.

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