Managing Communication in a Social Media Environment

Social media offer many compelling benefits, but managing business communication in this rapidly changing environment is not a simple task, for a number of reasons:

  • The communication effort is more complex, with more internal and external channels to staff and monitor. Managers need to make sure that outgoing messages are consistent, that incoming messages are addressed in a timely fashion, that problems and opportunities don’t fall through the cracks between all the various communication channels, and that all channels are used appropriately and legally. Simply keeping track of all the messages a company sends out—which is required for regulatory compliance in some industries—is such a challenge that new systems are being developed to capture and archive these vast and growing communication streams.
  • With more media information channels that require attention, the cost structure of business communication can change dramatically. For instance, companies shifting some of their marketing communication efforts from traditional advertising vehicles to social media may find themselves spending less on media but more on personnel in order to have enough employees available to monitor and respond to social media traffic. If companies are unable to add staff to handle social media work, they need to find ways to shift workloads around so that social media do not become an unsustainable burden.
  • Media tools and consumer behavior can evolve so quickly and so unpredictably that companies must be prepared to experiment continuously, adapt ideas that work, and abandon bad ideas—or good ideas that have outlived their usefulness. At the same time, companies must avoid slipping into a purely reactive mode, jumping on every hot idea and trend without integrating their efforts in an overall strategic framework.
  • Finally, companies need to have social media guidelines for their employees that strike a balance between too much control and too little. On the one hand, companies that go too far in trying to control their messages or their employees’ use of social media won’t reap the full benefits. On the other hand, not enough control can lead to chaotic inefficiency, mixed messages that confuse customers, and the risk of exposing information that needs to be kept secret for strategic or even legal reasons.


Among major corporations, IBM has been on the leading edge of social media usage since the earliest days of blogging and strongly encourages employees to use these tools. The company’s Social Computing Guidelines offer a number of insights into managing social communication and some intriguing topics for classroom discussion. For example, the company makes it clear that employees are personally responsible for any content they publish online and that they must always include a disclaimer that their opinions don’t necessarily reflect IBM’s official positions. The wide-ranging guidelines also provide helpful etiquette advice that would benefit everyone in the online arena, including "Don’t pick fights, and be the first to correct your own mistakes."

Adapted from Mark Evans, "No Social Media for Us, Thank You," Sysomos blog, 9 February 2011; Tanzina Vega, "Tools to Help Companies Manage Their Social Media," New York Times, 14 November 2010 [accessed 30 January 2011]; Paula Drum, "I Got People (Online): How H&R Block Connects by Using Social Media, presentation at BlogWell conference, 22 January 2009; Nick Wreden, "Social Media Policies for Business," Baseline, 7 June 2010 "Social Computing Guidelines," IBM [accessed 3 May 2011]

Image credit: Daniel Iverson