The social media backchannel
[box title="Note"] This is an advance excerpt from The Social Media Side Door, my book about the ways social media has rewritten the rules of access and influence. Subscribe to receive more excerpts, tips, and side door strategies.[/box]
Undercover Boss is a British-born television show with derivative versions in the US, Australia, Norway, Germany and Canada. The premise is simple: Top corporate executives go “under cover” as low-level employees to “examine the inner workings of their companies.” Filled with front-lines revelations, tough lessons, and buckets of tears, the executives leave their adventures in the real world with a new understanding of the day-to-day realities of the people that keep their companies humming. There’s something special about the show, as evidenced by the US version’s Emmy nomination and the fact that it “ranks as the biggest new series premier since 1987,” according to CBS.
The experience is often very humbling. The C-suiters routinely appear inept at performing simple tasks, or clueless about things like how their products are actually made. But if we’re to take them at their word, it’s all worth it. Why?
There are financial awards for companies appearing on the show. Essentially, the companies profiled are getting free advertising during prime time to the tune of more than $12,000,000, as one estimate suggests. Another analysis shows that many of the companies see a stock performance bump after appearing on the show. But a lot of the “free advertising” is unflattering, and it seems unlikely that the share price spike is a safe enough bet for the TV appearance to be calculated for this potential benefit.
No, these big shots are looking for something else: an escape from the echo chamber. Like Shakespeare’s King Henry V, who donned a disguise to walk among the his soldiers and get the unvarnished truth about their readiness for the next day’s battle, many powerful people know that their “10,000 foot view” of reality is colored by career-minded “yes men,” corporate groupthink, and their distance from the front lines.
Those who make important decisions based on a severely distorted reality will ultimately fail, so shrewd leaders place enormous importance on their backchannels to the truth. This is reflected in the rise of internal social networks like Yammer and Salesforce Chatter, which can facilitate enterprise-wide collaboration and that much-vaunted corporate “transparency.” These networks serve, in part, to break down rigid siloes and chains of command that can kill great ideas before they reach someone with the authority and resources to make them happen. On Chatter, for instance, a CEO can post a question to the organization, and receive answers from employees from across the entire company, at every level in the hierarchy. And yet, at many corporations, a direct email to the CEO concerning the same exact issue would be met with a layer of administrative scrutiny in the form of his or her executive assistant, where it may join a long queue of incoming messages, or die on the vine all together.
It’s worth noting, however, that employees don’t have quite the same enthusiasm for the potential of these tools. According to a survey from Deloitte, “As it relates to management visibility, 38% of executives think social media allows for increased transparency while only 17% of employees agree.”
Taking a break from writing this chapter, I happened to check my Facebook feed. On it, a friend had reposted her friend’s request for referrals to a freelance writer. This friend of a friend was a senior marketing executive at a major American auto manufacturer. Several hopefuls posted their interest on the thread, and I added a referral to someone I had worked with. Why did this executive feel the need to post his request to Facebook, and not simply scan his company’s database of proven copywriters? I suspect he’d say that there’s a world of knowledge and talent outside of his Detroit high-rise headquarters.