The social media manager debate: Can’t we get the fundamentals right first?

Posted on March 28, 2008 11:13 am by | Business | Channels | Internal | PR | Social Media

Steve Rubel and Jeremiah Owyang are at odds over the future of a job labeled, “Social Media Manager.” The job description of a social media manager revolves around the coordination of a company’s activities in the social media space.

Steve believes the job will be extinct in short order:

Who should “manage” these sites? Is it the social media specialist or someone in PR with specific vertical sector expertise who also gets digital? My strong feeling is that it’s the latter.

Owyang—who held a social media manager position with a previous employer—disagrees:

While I agree that social media skills will eventually become a normal bullet point in nearly every marketing resume in the future, today, and (for) the foreseeable (future), we???re needed specializing for the following two reasons: 1) The specific duties are foreign to most other marketers 2) Online communities (like the support team) require a dedicated role.

It’s an interesting debate, but one that I believe misses a bigger picture. Jeremiah is right that full-time focus is required for some online communities. Even Southwest Airlines had to hire staff just to handle the moderation of comments to its blog, “Nuts About Southwest.” But Steve is also right that the day is coming when anybody engaged in communications will include online social skills in their toolkit, right along with good writing skills (the entry-level requirement).

Ultimately, though, whether engagement with people is online or off, social or traditional, one-way or multi-directional, multimedia or text, it all comes down to one thing:


I have heard calls for companies to create a C-suite position called “Chief Conversation Officer,” someone to manage the various online social channels that produce conversation. Again, that misses the point. What companies need is a Chief Reputation Officer to ensure all communication with core publics is coordinated in the company’s best interests.

This is not an original concept. Charles Fombrun, chief executive officer of The Reputation Institute and author of books like “Corporate Reputation,” has been proposing the job for years. To this position, through single- or double-solid-lines, would report anybody in the organization who engages with publics. The idea is not to make sure they all utter the same corporate jargon, but rather to make sure the company’s plans, strategies, values and actions are addressed honestly and consistently. A social media manager is a fine idea, but if he says, “Our product is shipping late because of manufacturing issues” while a media relations manager tells a Wall Street Journal reporter, “Our product is shipping late because we’ve had to redesign a part,” that inconsistency will spread through the cycle-less media space—online and off—like wildfire. Whether it’s conversation or a traditional press release, the communication channel must be used to communicate honest, transparent, accurate information.

Few organizations have anybody in a position like this. Even if there’s a senior-level public affairs person, Human Resources and employee communications often don’t report to him, and both communicate to vital publics (employees and prospective employees). Community relations often reports elsewhere, as does investor relations and government relations. And all those employees with their individual blogs? Who’s providing them with the resources they need to represent the company accurately and fairly?

Who ends up managing social media spaces is an interesting argument, but seems to me less important than making sure whoever does it is part of a network through which accurate and candid information is funneled. It’s time to look higher up and beyond the niche. We should get the basics right before worrying too much about the details.



  • 1.For someone who built his career by claiming to be a social media expert, Steve is sure quick to call it a dead career. Which I take it to mean that he's about to package himself up as something new again, or decide he's a PR person again. I doubt it's the latter, though.

    I would bet more on what Jeremiah is talking about, as corporations are still looking to hire that level and skill set, and corporations are still trying to grasp just listening to the conversation.

    Depending on the economy, though, it likely has a shelf life of a few more years. Of course, I also thought PR firms would have clued in by now, and that they still wouldn't be scrambling to figure it out and hire bloggers. And that there'd be educational programs and not separate divisions. Oh well.

    Jeremy Pepper | March 2008 | Los Angeles

  • 2.Shel this post really inspired me, I wrote a post based on it called Social media manager ? hopefully coming to a campus near you. I know your speaking to higher ed people a lot so I thought you might be interested.

    Matt Herzberger | March 2008 | College Station, TX

  • 3.Another great set of posts. Mahalo!
    Social media may be considered part of the corporate infrastructure analagous to the LAN. It supports many departments such as HR, internal and external communication, innovation, etc. Social media will be just as important to the successful, profitable company as the corporate LAN/WAN.
    In my "day job" company that has no social media activity (email being too often un-social), I'm proposing some internal social media use for suggestions, employee engagement, etc. Previously turned down several year ago but time to try again especially if I can get research data as a bonus.
    I think that it will end up in the PR dept that also publishes the bi-monthly newsletter and maintains the intranet news postings.

    Dan Smith | March 2008 | Hawaii

  • 4.Shel, I couldn't agree with you more. As a graduate student in an applied communication program at IUPUI, I've been preaching this concept to the higher-ups for the past three years. I'm surprised it's fallen on deaf ears given our chancellor is a communication scholar in his own right.

    At the organization I work for presently, I am the CCO. While I only hold the title of Communication Manager, over the past 18 or so months, I have created a structure in the organization which fosters consistent messaging. The one time we lost our footing, the CEO saw a dramatic difference, and we have since stayed on track.

    Rodger D. Johnon | March 2008 | Indianapolis, IN

  • 5.Shel--really interesting post that offers communicators a lot to think about. While I do believe that, in theory, every position should require some degree of digital monitoring expertise, I also don't see the expertise itself as the problem; rather, I think the problem is being able to dedicate the amount of time needed to make the online platforms' content robust and relevant. At PR News, I wish I had someone who was 100% dedicated to the Web site, the MySpace page, the blog and nothing else ... Plus, that person could keep our team constantly abreast of new media technologies. Of course, it is a lofty goal, but surely one that companies should strive for as digital becomes central to all communications strategies ...

    Courtney Barnes | March 2008

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