Friday, May 22, 2009

Scared of Social Media? Time to Graduate from "Old School"

As a professional communicator, I’ve done work in a government setting (US Navy Public Affairs Officer) and I’ve done corporate gigs (Amoco Corporation and others). As a reserve officer, I would often be in the position to tell my active duty friends about all the wonderful things going on in the corporate world that they were slow to adopt. With Social Media, it’s now just the opposite. Government is embracing Social Media in a huge way and my corporate friends are well behind the curve.

The Houston Chronicle ran a story May 22 about oil companies that were planning on using Twitter to share updates on the 2009 hurricane season. The storms often shutdown production in the Gulf of Mexico, and platforms that normally operate 24/7 are shut in and personnel evacuated. It would seem Twitter would be an ideal venue for updates of that nature.

Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron plan to include hurricane updates using their Twitter accounts and Websites. (Full Disclosure: I have done media training for Chevron since 2001, but didn’t have a role in either this article or decision.) The Chevron and Shell decisions didn’t surprise me, but some of the comments by other companies did. The Chronicle checked in with Valero Energy to see if the company would be using Twitter.

Valero is the largest US refiner and its plants along the Gulf Coast are routinely shut down when storms threaten. Spokesman Bill Day is quoted, “No, we’re pretty old school.”

Old school in this context is a really nice way of saying “We’re trapped in the 20th century. And we like it!” Perhaps the quote was written on parchment and delivered to the Chronicle by Messenger Pigeon.

Contrast that with NASA. They have an entire page on their Website that lets people know how they can collaborate with the agency. NASA is on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace. Even the word collaborate tells you a lot about how the agency is communicating. NASA is reaching out to the audience wherever that audience may be. (Full Disclosure: I have done media training and messaging workshops for the Space Agency). NASA has even won multiple Webby Awards for various agency Websites, including 2009 awards for its main site and the site for the Cassini Mission.

And it’s not just NASA; a friend of mine was the director of new media for the Department of Defense before she was recalled to Afghanistan. Local governments are getting into the act, too. Check out the Los Angeles Fire Department’s use of Social Media during recent wild fires.

One of my media training partners always tells our students that it is the communicator’s job to reach the audience not the other way around. In fact, the first thing my tenth grade speech teacher taught me was to identify the audience.

Technology is merely the delivery system. Ignoring new ways to reach the audiences on which you depend isn’t old school, it's lazy.

The only thing you guarantee by not using Social Media is that your audience will get information about you someplace else.

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