Social Media FAQ #6: Who “Owns” the Social Media Program?

I’ve started a new series, called Social Media Frequently Asked Questions. It’s a collection of the top asked questions I hear over and over. I’m putting them here on my blog is a great place to help everyone quickly get educated, convince their boss, or be able to help their clients get over these hurdles, so please, pass them around.

If you’re seeking advanced topics, cruise through the web strategy posts (it goes back pages and pages)

I’ve been speaking to a couple of companies each week from a variety of industries, and each at different levels of expertise (see the five questions I use to gauge their level of sophistication).

Now, in 2008, I’m often on the phone with the VP of Marketing, or speaking to a large group of corporate marketers, previous yesars, it was a small brownbag of those that were trying to evangelize –enterprises are waking up and seeing the impact.

I’ve noticed a trend of questions lately, where during the Q&A session someone will ask “Who owns the social media program?”. I get variations on the theme that include “Who should updated Wikipedia?” or “Who should respond to bloggers” or “Who should respond to twitter?”.

I’ve deduced there are two reasons why people ask this question:

The first reason is that companies are very unsure of who ‘owns’ this type of communication, one very foreign to the model of corporate communications who creates press releases and anoints official company spokespersons.

The second reason people ask this question is that they’re undergoing internal turmoil, and they are trying to get me to say something that will prove a point to someone else in the room. I can always tell, as I see the audience eyeballs shift from the person who asked to the person it was ‘intended’ to aim at. (Speaker tip: I watch the audience as much as they watch me during presentations –esp blackberry usage, and what’s said on Twitter)

..both are valid and real.

All of this gets trickier and trickier as when we realize that social media impacts nearly every department in the company, at first PR, then Marketing, Product Teams, Research & Development, Support, Engineering, HR, Legal, Sales, and of course the executive team, in fact, I’ve outlined how social computing impacts the whole product life cycle, only for advanced readers.

Social Media FAQ #6: Who Owns the Social Media Program
The answer to this question is “It depends”, and here’s how I answer it:

First, I discuss that the once solid lines of communication of corporate communications are now blurred at the edges of the company, where employees who blog, or Gen Y students who indicate they work for a company in their Facebook profile, or the product manager who guises as an expert in a third party product site participates –now everyone, in one shape or another can represent the brand online.

Secondly, I first share the three models of internal organization, the tower, tire, and the hub & spoke. After reading sharing this, I ask the audience which camp they currently are in, and where do they want to be.

Thirdly, I talk about the need for the roles of the community manager and the social media strategist, in fact there’s a report on it on the Forrester site. Roles are needed for success, in fact I was the former community manager at HDS –I’ve lived through this. (I’ve also developing the ability to quickly identify who these folks are in the room: by the questions they ask, head nodding during certain points, and when their eyes light up when I talk about connecting with customers)

Lastly, I discuss the air traffic tower, an internal tool and process where a cross-functional team assembles and communicates (the hub and spokes as I mentioned above)

I purposely did not directly answer ‘who’ owns the program (but something I would do for clients), instead, I’ve layed out all of the options, some goals, some roles that are appearing, that will help define where you should go. The thing is, each company will be different, although I clearly see some trends occurring.

Whew that was a lot, but each of those represent different takes of what’s happening in the external market and how they impact internal teams like Corporate Communications, Legal, HR, Sales, Product Teams, Support, and most of all… customers.

  • Great post. I think this “ownership” issue is probably one of the big things that prevents companies from getting involved.

  • Jeremiah, interesting that you left out Tech. Purposely?

  • Will

    I “Left out Tech”? you mean technology as a solution to this problem?

    If so, this is a process and organizational issue, more important that features and gadgets

  • No Tech as an impacted internal team. I think one of the big potential gaps is not tying Social Marketing/Media programs back into your existing customer data and metrics. Obviously sits in the hub and spokes of your model, but opening up and integrating with the tools out there is a significant challenge, as well as opportunity for the Tech teams.

  • L.

    Great post Jeremiah…Ownership carries a lot of weight – especially to the department head, who the owner will be reporting too. It is highly rare that a VP or other C-level execs. will be the workers of a social media platform; however, they’ll have to be brought up to speed on how to oversee workflow and content. Legal will most definitely want buy in on all issues until they begin to feel comfortable, which for legal rarely happens. Education is key.

  • Legal.

    Most companies cannot use social media effectively (if at all) because their legal vetting processes are roadblocks to speed and spontaneity. Jeremiah, I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Few brand marketers I encounter are resistant to using social media, although I do get the sense that the PR /corporate communications departments feel a little threatened.

  • Tom, does Legal own corp comm and press releases? (in some companies, yes)

    The answer will vary, it depends on the organization.

    What’s key to notice is the NEXT generation of workers are already using these tools to communicate, and will continue to do so when they enter the workforce.

  • I work in PR and my company is just getting into developing a social media presence. It seems that PR is expected to take the lead (something we are happy to do) but the company is leaning toward the “tower” type of internal organization, which I think would be a mistake. How do I get people thinking in terms of the “hub-and-spoke” without making them fearful that they will lose–status? Importance? Control of the process? The way I see it, there’s plenty of work to go around! We could use some help.

  • This is almost the same conversation that happened 12+ years ago when companies started building web sites. You also had pockets of expertise coming from different groups: sometimes technology, sometimes, PR, etc.
    The bigger the company, the bigger the legal questions arise and aim to control/spin the conversation.
    Most companies needed to appoint a leader from one team or another and create a cross-functional team to address all of the issues.

  • Rich,
    And what happened to websites and how to manage them? Exclusive web teams formed with budget and directors, often reporting to Marketing, IT or on their own.

    Start an internal discussion, maybe a brown bag session and bring the different constituents to the table in a casual way. Most importantly, talk about customers more than internal politics.

  • I like your post, and like the idea of your consumers having some control. Besides, you want to hear with they are saying and thinking. It is good for both sides.

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  • Jeremiah,
    Agreed. I was trying to say that history is (and will be) repeating itself — but with much greater stakes, because the information/conversation is flowing much faster and in so many more directions.
    Companies should revisit their successes or failures the first time around.

  • Great post Jeremiah. Very informative and interesting. You might be interested in reading “The Answer,” by John Assaraf and Murray Smith. It talks heavily about cracking the entrepreneurial code. Thanks again!

  • Christopher Coulter

    I purposely did not directly answer ‘who’ owns the program

    Of course not, you’d have to turn in your analyst badge if you actually came up with an answer, over some make-work scavenger-hunt laundry list. Answers (gasp) that’s breaking the consultant rule #1, never give out anything, even coming close to a final conclusion.

    Ownership is a valid question, it determines WHO is responsible, WHO will do the work, and WHO will get the credit. You can’t go all communal socialistic and say everyone is responsible, because then NO ONE will do it. And “everyone” never includes the minimum wage slave earners or indentured permatemps, no matter how much faux lip service is paid, “everyone” is code for everyone on the essential never-lay-off lists.

  • Coulter

    Your second paragraph has some good points, some of the answers are emerging in the comments anyways.

  • Jeremiah,

    First of all, you were very polite to Coulter. Not sure he deserved it. The fact is that this is a really tough question. Not for a start-up with 6 people, but for a large company with lawyers, corp comm, marketing, PR, web teams.

    I’ve seen the dynamic across my clients and the answer is, as you said: Very much dependent on the company culture.

    If you gave a definitive, perfect world answer, it would be unrealistic, and you’d be criticized for being ivory tower…

    Good post.


  • Jim

    Just smile when it comes to Chris, I do.

    Chris Coulter is a former colleague, a nice guy in person, but he tends to act like a troll online, He’s known for trolling Scobleizer. I left a comment on Robert’s blog, which triggered Chris to follow the link.

    The online one is a real hoot, but I miss the old Chris

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