Opinion

A lot of people just want social media to go away

Rob O'BrienIn this guest post, Rob O’Brien argues that most in the business world would rather social media went the way of the Dodo.

Allow me to apologise in advance to all of those CEOs and corporate leaders in Asia using social media to engage with their stakeholders, customers and the broader public. It’s a wonderful effort you’re making, your insights on business life in the Asian century are welcome, and the merits of being in the most envied continent in the world. I take my hat off to you.

But…

I can’t help thinking that big business in Asia hasn’t really pushed the ‘social’ boat out; in fact, I’d go as far as to say the boat is still sparkling in the showroom.

Along with partner KRC Research, Weber Shandwick surveyed 630 senior professionals from around the world, a majority of whom said they wanted their CEOs to be using social media, whether via the company website, blog, or on their own personal social media channels.

If you spin that another way, it’s quite a telling indictment – 76 per cent in all don’t think leaders are doing enough.

I actually don’t think that’s too unusual.

All over the business world, there are lots of people hoping social media will be sucked into a black hole or burn out on its own vitriol and puppy photos. They’d love nothing more than to see this all implode, despite what social media marketers tell you.

Why? Some business leaders have good reason to keep quiet – imagine you’re the CEO of a bank for example: why open up new and more immediate channels for people to explain why they loath you?

Government is the same – there is still a ‘Really, do we have to?’ attitude towards real-time engagement, which is to be expected.

In a previous job I chaired a citizen engagement workshop for the Hong Kong Government during which I asked a senior public servant whether government agencies were really keen to embrace a two-way dialogue with citizens via blogs, Facebook or Twitter. “I think they’re all just hoping this goes away,” was the refreshing answer I got. And there’s nothing wrong with that answer either.

A study by IBM last year found that out of 1,709 CEOs from 64 countries and 18 industries — only 16 per cent participated in social media. For some leaders there’s no obvious net gain in embracing social media; it’s not imperative – the risk is too high, the gains too marginal. Best leave it alone.

Despite big steps made by governments to open up, and Singapore is a fine example, where its ministers regularly take to Facebook to post comments on current events and policies, the backlash still makes it a negligible social investment.

Millions of column inches have been devoted to the importance of social media for companies by agencies, marketeers and the like. But I still see plenty of, what we call, ‘pushback’.

The more we crow about its importance for business and government, the more reticence and skepticism I encounter. That could be flushed out by the next generation of leaders, for sure.

But there are plenty of analog leaders out there, make no mistake about that.

Rob O’Brien is a media specialist and writer in Singapore. He is author of his own blog and tweets at @robobr7.

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