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Commentary by Mark Loschiavo

It was the evening of June 25 at precisely 5:56 Eastern Time when I, once again, came face-to-face with the Communications Paradox. As I was preparing to introduce myself to a cohort of executive MBA students for whom I would be teaching strategic management, one of the students announce to the group that Michael Jackson was dead. Several others reached for their smart phones and notebook computers for confirmation. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I was witnessing the Communications Paradox.

Over the years I have observed that the single biggest challenge for any leader is effective communications. Regardless of the organization, the most common complaint expressed by stakeholders is insufficient communications. Even the most diligent leader seems unable to communicate quickly, frequently or completely enough to his or her constituents. But if a scandal occurs, word spreads at the speed of light. That is the Communications Paradox.

Five hours after my class began on June 25th I learned that Michael Jackson was pronounced dead at 2:26PM Pacific Time. Even though it occurred some 2,730 miles from our classroom, my students were discussing his death a mere 30 minutes after it occurred. This was well before the major networks and news outlets reported it. It was then that I realized I had once again encountered the Communications Paradox, driven by a convergence of technology and keen interest.

Just as the Internet and social media have changed the face of journalism forever, it is also changing the way companies relate to their customers. Two weeks ago I led a panel discussion that touched on the importance of social media in today’s business world. One of the executives on the panel described his active involvement with the various social media outlets for purposes of customer relations, and consumer and industry communications.

The obvious temptation is to presume a leader can improve the efficiency and effectiveness of communications by merely introducing social media tools into his or her tool bag. Before jumping to this conclusion it might be helpful to look back to the early days of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solutions.

Not too many years ago, ERP was heralded as the business savior. Companies of all shapes and sizes were willing to invested millions implementing ERP solutions, and companies like SAP and Oracle were more than happy to oblige. All too often, however, these solutions failed to deliver the promised returns. As such, company executives and business pundits were quick to assign blame to the technology. While consultants and solution providers were culpable, the primary blame rests with the company leaders. Quite simply, they attempted to introduce new technology tools without introducing the business process, and management, changes necessary to leverage these new technologies.

Before fully embracing social media to shore up company communications, the leadership team should answer the following questions:

1. Have we democratized company communications, or are our communications typically top down? If the leadership culture is one that believes it is important that company communications are closely and centrally managed, social media tools may increase the quantity of communications, but not the quality or effectiveness of communications. The unprecedented swell in social media is largely due to its democratic nature, where all stakeholders have a voice.

2. How do we handle media inquiries today? If all media inquiries are referred to your “company communications” team, introducing social media tools likely will not enhance communications. In the wake of the recent, well-publicized, corporate malfeasance, stakeholders are demanding more and more transparency. Social media tools provide an excellent platform for transparency, but only if company leaders are willing to risk spontaneity of communications.

3. Do we have a shared vision among the entire leadership team? If not, the risks associated with spontaneous transparency can be significant. The only thing worst than sluggish communications is providing stakeholder with conflicting messages.

4. Do we have a company culture that encourages healthy debate? Part of the allure of New Media is its provocative nature. Stakeholders want to be heard, and want their opinions to be voiced. As long as everyone in the organizations understands they are on the same team, and working toward the same over-arching objectives, ongoing debate and dialogue is healthy.

In the final analysis, leaders who are prepared to leverage social media as a tool to help overcome the age-old problem of effective communications are better positioned to succeed.

©Mark P. Loschiavo

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