Social Media, Control and Engagement

People Matter, Objects Don't (from Hugh MacLeod at

There’s no question that the term social media is hotter than ever with quite a future ahead. It seems you can’t go to any event that claims the term ‘innovation’ as its mandate without some reference to tools like Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare . It’s because of this that I have a love-hate relationship with social media because its popularity is also what makes it problematic, particularly for fields like public health or for academia or other types of serious matters. Why? As one who studies, uses and designs social media strategies for public health I should be thrilled that it’s taken up so widely.

It’s not that these tools are being used, but how – at least by organizations. In yesterday’s Globe and Mail, reporter Kelly Grant showcased how the Toronto mayoral candidates were using social media to advance their campaigns. The quote that stuck out for me was from candidate George Smitherman’s spokesman Stefan Baranski who said:

“What goes out on social media now is as good as a press release”

The focus is on ‘managing’ the message and “getting the word out” is, to my mind, missing the point. Social media — as its name suggests — is social. That means that it is all about relationships and that means trust. When was the last time you had a meaningful relationship that was managed? When did you last control a conversation?

Politicians, public health and health care leaders, and companies all want to engage the public and they see social media as the means to do it. But true engagement is about genuine conversation, dialogue and trust, not faux Tweets or self-promotional Facebook posts. Politicians, organizations and leaders within them might do better to treat their constituents as people rather than objects. That’s why so many distrust politicians, and why public agencies and corporations have such a difficult time using social media to convert their messages into real value.

In my field, public health (note: that first part), we often speak to people  like they’re children in a patronizing manner that says “we know better, trust us”. The problem is, we don’t and they don’t . We have a lot of knowledge about how to prevent illness, keep people healthy and happy, and create stronger communities, but we don’t know it all and never will. But, we do have a lot of knowledge that is useful and can make real contributions to the betterment of society.

That is what we’re supposed to do.

Our best chance is to dialogue with the public in ways that build trust, enabling the public to learn from us and to us to learn from them just as we would at a casual conversation with a friend or colleague.

Social media gives us the tools to do this, but only if we treat it as social and not just as media.

4 thoughts on “Social Media, Control and Engagement”

  1. Cameron:

    Excellent insights on engagement and trust-building. The question that nobody has been able to answer yet is…

    “How do we do it one person at a time,
    in this social media paradigm?”

    (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

    Yes, yes, Engage. Converse. Listen. But you know and I know that engaging and conversing can quickly take up your entire day and then some. At the level of a city department of public health, or a regional nonprofit food bank, there’s no one available to spend that amount of time building the bully pulpit of trust and legitimacy one conversation at a time. I got no answers, man.

  2. Rick,

    Thanks so much for your comments and contributions. You have decided to ride that elephant in the room and yell “look at me!” .

    I can’t agree more. This is one of those situations where the answer is simple, but not easy. Engaging people, having real conversations, and sharing your ideas online on a regular basis is remarkably easy now, maybe more than ever before. But if you:

    A) Aren’t able to access many social media sites because your agency (e.g., public health units) blocks sites like Twitter, Facebook and the like;

    B) The available tools — computers, laptops, mobile devices (if available) — aren’t capable of handling things, are blocked, or are so poorly kept up they are functionally useless;

    C) Social media is not valued or considered ‘serious’ enough to permit during regular work hours — forcing people to do it on nights and weekends;

    D) There is no organizational support in social media or conversations for that matter. You or your team don’t have enough time to actually engage people in a meaningful way because you are overloaded at your job, that work is not valued, or that it isn’t ‘measureable’ and thus not really work (see Einstein’s quote for what I think of this idea:

    E) some combination of any of the above

    We spend so much energy on changing individuals, when really we need to change organizations and systems. Training people to use new tools, value the public and using that information (with evidence too) to make decisions is a minor change compared with creating more responsive, dynamic, and knowledge translating organizations from the beginning.

  3. Cameron:

    Thanks for the great A.E. quote. I’ve printed it out to post outside my office. I’m in the process of re-reading, for the 4th or 5th time, The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which has a great layman’s explanation of special and general relativity. Each time I read it, I absorb and retain .oo5% more information.

  4. You see, Cameron, this is what happens to your engagement level when you’ve got millions of dollars to throw at it. I got a tremendous kick out of this article.

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