Dear President Obama:
It was really nice when social media was your special friend, wasn’t it? When you had your Facebook page and everyone lauded it, you were the social media President, the social media guy. People saidf you had “cracked the code” on using social media for politics, people wrote books and reports about how you had won the Presidency by “getting” social media when very few people and companies go it, and everything was great.
But now social media is not your special friend any more, is it?
As the major media have been ceaselessly reporting, “a cache of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables, most of them from the past three years, provides an unprecedented look at back-room bargaining by embassies around the world, brutally candid views of foreign leaders and frank assessments of nuclear and terrorist threats” (NY Times, Nov 28, Shane and Lehren article).
Social media changes everything.
Social media isn’t just about fan pages, Mr. President. It isn’t just about organizing your supporters. It most certainly isn’t like chain mail, that can just “amplify” a social (“Change”) or campaign (“Vote”) message. Not in the big picture analysis. It isn’t just about marketing. Not really. Where you did get it right, President Obama, and where there is still lots of hope, I believe, is that the key to your campaign’s use of social media-although it has disappointingly dropped off in your years in the Oval Office-is that it was always about Empowerment.
Edelman wrote a nice report about the Obama campaign’s use of social media that hammered home how it used social media to empower its supporters. Here are its principles:
- Laddering support through tiers of engagement
- Empowering super users
- Providing source materials for user-generated content
- Going where the people are
- Using tools people are familiar with
- Ensuring that people can find your content
- Mobilizing supporters through mobile devices
- Harnessing analytics to constantly improve engagement activities
- Building the online operation to scale
Those are good solid marketing lessons, good social media marketing lessons, too. But here’s a new lesson for the books, Mr. President: Empowerment cuts both ways. Wikileaks is doing this, too. And here is another one: social media changes everything.
What I mean is that, for you, and for others in power like corporate executives and heads of nonprofit companies, and leaders of all shapes and sizes, social media is like someone coming and peeling a wall from your house and one from your office, replacing them with two panes of glass, setting up deckchairs on your lawn, and inviting everyone to come take turns watching you. The same ability to get into people’s living rooms means they are peering into your living room, too.
You want “Transparency”? In the social media world, you’ve got it. “Control of the message”? Well, that’s a whole other thing.
Here is the dilemma. What Wikileaks did and keeps doing is a major headache and a major embarrassment. You, Hilary, and your State Department staff must be apologizing like jostled Canadians at this point. Maybe it is more than a headache. Almost certainly the site is breaking some laws by “publishing” such private governmental information. Should it be shut down? Crushed like Napster or Pirate Bay (sorry).
I don’t think so. What the major press has also picked up is that this gargantuan leak is also an incredible opportunity for anyone to take a peek, as deep a peek as they like, into the way American diplomacy is done. It is a window thrown open onto something that was previously backdoor. And in a real democracy, that is incredibly value, because it spurs examination, self-examination, and real “Change” (remember that word, Mr. President? It used to be your friend, too).
According to Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, the site will release a treasure trove of documents early next year that will show a big US bank engaging in “flagrant violations” and “unethical practices” and trigger all sorts of regulatory examination. And as the finance industry goes, it is no doubt that other industries will follow. A parade of companies will follow, their leaders hung out to dry, naked and vulnerable with their expletives undeleted, their decision-making and moral stances fully exposed (anyone remember the Ford Pinto? How about the Toyota scandal?)
Social media changes business in more ways that marketing. It is a painful transition. It is going to be wrenching. We are just feeling the first death thrashes of the old, secretive system. But in the long run, truth and consistency are good things.
Mr. President, please be careful as you consider the question of whether to shut Wikileaks down, or limit its ability to reveal.
Let’s be honest. It isn’t like this is the first time you have tried to control social media, President Obama. Most people have already forgotten how you got into a public argument with Joe Anthony, an early supporter of you. Mr. Anthony was advanced enough in social media to start a MySpace page with your name on it, to support your bid to become a candidate for President, before you did. He gathered 130,000 friends for you. You then went straight to the authorities at MySpace and had them turn the page over to your campaign so you could take control of it. Oops. No thank you, no apology, just “that’s mine-I control that.”
That old school, heavy handed technique did not work. The followers rebelled. It got nasty. It took a real, personal apology and a lot of effort to get people back and on board.
You learned your lesson that time. Please remember it this time. Let the secrets keep flowing until you learn how to manage them. Let the information get out until frontstage and backstage are consistent. Let the people know how you really govern, not just how you say you govern. Please don’t just be a politician. It is clearly not what the people want from you. Learn from the mistakes to lead with inspiring integrity and truly empower.
And let social media change everything.