In the era of the 140-character news cycle, 20th-century approval processes are a recipe for failure

Posted on July 16, 2013 10:17 am by | Business | Media | Social Media | Twitter

I woke up this morning to reports of a couple news stories breaking when I went to bed last night. First was the seizure of a North Korean ship by Panama, whose president, Richardo Martinelli, shared evidence that supported his country’s claim that the rogue state was trying to sneak missile parts through the canal in violation of United Nations sanctions. Martinelli shared the evidence in a tweet.

Last night at dinner, I also heard from my Canadian friends about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet shake-up. The government’s first word of the new appointments were tweeted. A Globe and Mail report quoted PMO spokewoman Julie Vaux noting, “More and more Canadians are getting their news from social media and so today‚Äôs shuffle was circulated on social media channels.”

The media wasn’t given a list of the new appointees until the tweeted announcements were finished, “leaving reporters watching Twitter as each car pulled up.” The tweets also included the Twitter handles of each of the new cabinet ministers, “an apparent attempt to build their own online clout,” according to the article. And at the swearing-in ceremonies, the Harper government released two YouTube videos featuring a pair of the younger newcomers to the cabinet who were “meant to give cabinet a fresh face.”

Cabinet shuffle

A study recently released by the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow concluded that newswires beat Twitter except in the cases of disasters and sports. While that may be true, it is likely changing as institutions recognize the value of going straight to the constituents via Twitter and other social channels.

Many businesses, in the meantime, opt not to use these channels, particularly in response to emerging issues, because their internal approval processes render it impossible. In company after company, I hear communicators lament that the levels of approval required to post substantive news or policy information to Twitter or Facebook would take days, rendering the information obsolete by the time it was finally posted.

It is time for organizations to revisit their approval processes and make the changes necessary to accommodate the reality of the 140-character news cycle.

The approval process is designed to minimize risk to the organization. If most corporate lawyers had their way, organizations would hardly communicate anything at all. After all, if the company doesn’t say anything, there’s zero risk that what was said could come back to haunt the organization in court. According to attorney Jim Golden, speaking in a 2009 session of FIR Live, argues that lawyers learn this lesson in law school, and they abide by the practice with ferocious tenacity, even though it’s frequently a very bad idea.

Businesses can take two lessons from today’s news of governments—often seen as the most bureaucratic and plodding of institutions—using social media to break news.

In the case of the Canadian cabinet shuffle, you can prepare your social media assets in advance. It’s the same approach Raytheon has taken to providing real-time coverage of the Farnborough and Paris air shows—preparing as much of the content as possible in advance, running it through approvals, then filling in details from the on-site event with a lawyer standing by to approve the new material quickly.

As for Panama President Martinelli, the objective was to get the image of missile parts to the public fast. That’s pretty easy if you’re the president—there aren’t a lot of layers of authority to order you to wait until the image and tweet have been vetted. But organizations can still be as quick as Martinelli was. The key is training.

Lawyers, Human Resources, Compliance and others review material because they, and not the communicators or PR staff, know the legal/HR/compliance issues that could cause the company grief. Several organizations address that by putting bloggers and other social media communicators through training designed by legal/HR/compliance and other pertinent departments so that they will understand those issues. Consider it proactive, rather than reactive, approval. Most training programs also exact a promise from participants that if they’re in doubt, they’ll call and ask.

To engage in a conversation or deploy content days after it was relevant is a recipe for failure; your audience will already have moved on. In one study, while half the mainstream press was still reporting on news that broke a week earlier, only 5% of the Twitter audience was still talking about it. Real-time engagement is the order of the day, and our approval processes need to evolve to adapt to it.

In your social media efforts, how do you handle approvals? The more examples and processes we can share here, the more ideas others can take to their leaders. Let’s tear down the approval barrier while still protecting our organizations from undue risk.



  • 1.It comes down to this for most organizations (especially government) ... you move at the speed of your audiences (social media) to have a chance to be relevant ... and you use the tools they use (mobile devices) to have a chance to be heard ...

    Most governments still think they can "control" the message whereas we're in an era of message "competition" ... long approvals and using traditional media as your main info channels mean you're not even in the race anymore ...

    Patrice Cloutier | July 2013 | Toronto, Canada

  • 2.Yes, Shel, some seeming advances on the Twitter front by the Canadian federal government. Unfortunately, that's all they used Twitter for - to release the names of new ministers, plus a few other self-congratulatory messages at the end. In other words, marketing. After that, the federal government Twitter feed dried up, there was no conversation or engagement even though others in the Twittersphere were reacting to the announcements. An opportunity passed over. Bottom line: one social media step forward, but another one backward at the same time.

    Roger Morier | July 2013 | Toronto

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