When it comes to social media, corporations and institutions are damned if they do, damned if they don’t. It’s no wonder so many decision-makers feel like they’re standing on a narrow island in the middle of a strange highway with cars zipping past them on both sides.

Earlier today I blogged about Sanofi-Aventis and the lumps it’s taking for not understanding the new culture of communication and interaction in the digital age. Around the same time, the Globe and Mail’s Ivor Tossell published a critical piece about Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his asynchronous video town hall with Canadian citizens using popular social media site YouTube. Meanwhile, many companies are unable to embrace social media due to legislative or regulatory restrictions of which most of us are unaware.

It’s culture –not technology– that scares institutions.

Many social media advocates like to blame traditional values as the reason most establishments aren’t online or for “getting it wrong”. There is truth to that. However, I believe fear plays a bigger factor. And, many of the same social media advocates are to blame for that, too.

One such example took place in December 2009 2008 when Chris Brogan came under fire for a sponsored (positive) review of a shopping experience at K-Mart. Despite being transparent about the sponsorship from the very beginning, Chris’ following (and a large group of “griefers” that emerged for the opportunity to complain about something) couldn’t believe it was possible to have a good experience at K-Mart, paid or not. What the mob didn’t consider is that for all the opportunities it seeks to encourage businesses to get involved online and to invest money in online sponsorship and advertising, it actually portrayed the web as a hostile environment of which companies should be weary (and K-Mart got some free public opinion polling in the process).

Score one for Canada.

The speed at which messages are expected, misinterpreted and amplified is scary. This leads to baby steps like Your Interview with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Of course, politicians and governments are not known for being on the cutting edge so we can expect the digitization of those worlds to take significantly longer — what I call the Long Head of adoption.

Having said that, apparently members of the US Government were stunned to learn Finance Canada Twittered the federal budget on March 4. The Ontario Ministry of Finance announced they’ll be doing the same on March 25. Perhaps the video town hall is “ho-hum”, but it is a small step toward 2010.

The best of both worlds.

As much as they’d like to venture into the unknown, it’s safer to stay where they know how the pastures look and act. That comfort and a fear of change leads Mitch Joel to quote General Eric Shinseki who said “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

Organizations need to be allowed the opportunity to test the waters and know they can be effective and productive in them. That means the digital masses (and media) will have plenty of opportunities to be critical of institutions for not embracing social media quickly enough and then berate them when they do it wrong.

Share This

Share this post with your friends!