As the final hours tick down until the 2012 Olympic games get started in London, you can call the International Olympic Committee anything you want. Except social media-savvy.
Last week, the IOC touched off a bit of a firestorm when it released a four-page document outlining proper use of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter during the games. In an age when tweeting from a smartphone is more natural for some than picking up the phone, some of the limitations are laughable:
Participants can't post video or audio from an Olympic venue. If an athlete tweets a clip from the opening ceremonies, it could be accompanied by a ticket home.
No use of the Olympic rings logo in any online of offline activity. That cafe that arranged five bagels in the shape of the rings in its front window? The grandmother who knit them into a tiny doll sweater for her charity group? Both were asked to cease and desist or risk being fined.
No URLs with the word "Olympic" in them are allowed. I'm guessing Olympic Air may be looking for a temporary rebrand.
The sad irony of this entire episode is that the IOC clearly hasn't yet learned to appreciate the potential of social media to strengthen its brand and grow its business. It is so focused on catering to its sponsors — whose fees are funding the majority of the games' $3 billion operations budget — that it fails to recognize that the model itself, built long before the Internet era, is badly in need of restructuring.
While an organization firmly rooted in 19th and 20th century thinking struggles with new media reality, the lessons of what not to do are being laid out clearly for businesses of all stripes. Stay away from the following as you consider your own company's social media next steps:
Enforcement. The IOC has put together a force of approximately 280 so-called brand enforcers designed to root out violators. They work for the evil-sounding Olympic Deliverance Committee, and they're authorized to shut down anyone who isn't authorized to use the rings or related trademarked terms. They'll happily take tips from snitches, too. Businesses considering their own online employee usage strategies may want to avoid rolling out the social media police too quickly. Cooperation builds trust with employees far more effectively than confrontation.
Negativity. Rules for social media use shouldn't revolve around the world "no". Instead focus on what employees, vendors and other stakeholders are allowed to do and say when they pick up their smartphones. Solicit their advance input, too, to ensure the rules aren't laughed out of the office when they're first presented.
Imbalance. When deciding on business-related acceptable use, being too laissez-faire is just as significant a risk as being too overbearing. Confrontation, discrimination, profanity or racism — as Greek track athlete Voula Papachristou discovered the hard way after her offensive tweets got her sent home — can easily damage your brand. Set acceptable limits and provide ongoing feedback to employees to ensure they remain compliant.
Selling. Don't think your tweeting minions will use their accounts to sell more stuff. Social media is about branding, and a balanced framework that lets them build relationships with customers, vendors and others does a lot more good than one that pushes the hard sell, tweet after tweet.
Banning. Employees are going to use social media tools whether you want them to or not. Instead of prohibiting the activity entirely, work with them to understand why they tweet in the first place, what they say online when they do, and how that can be used to help build your brand.
There's nothing wrong with organizations trying to encourage proper use of a growing range of fast evolving online tools. The IOC, like any other business or organization, is well within its rights to try new things as it balances user-driven social media messaging with the economic interests of sponsors and other stakeholders.
Adapting existing business models to the unknowns of social media can be a delicate process, and it's absolutely acceptable to try to build in some kind of framework to help keep everyone on the same page. But social media is a unique animal in that its legions of users have already decided what is and is not acceptable to them. For late-to-the-game companies, trying to rein in behaviours that have already been ingrained is akin to shooing the herd back into the pasture long after they've escaped into the countryside.
Businesses wondering what this means to them would be wise to simply follow — and adapt to — the roaming herd instead of assuming they can exert some kind of centralized control over it. Thanks to social media, there's no way any organization, even one as seemingly powerful as the IOC, will ever have that kind of universal control over end-user behaviour again.
Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. firstname.lastname@example.org