Social media lost in translation across the generations

Another conflagration of social ideas this week with damage control / high consequence responses to statements by baby boomer male politicians which have ‘shocked’ certain audiences. At the same time, I see corporate CEO’s being encouraged to use Twitter, Facebook and blog in order to provide a more personal, social, face to their company’s brand. Why don’t they? Because in the commercial space, a strategic communication blunder can have an immediate and extreme impact on the share price or customer loyalty. In the political space, you have the opportunity to steer the spin harder and try to recover before the next election. One person’s high consequence may be another person’s routine emergency.

In the US, Mitt Romney is getting a caning for using the phrase ‘binders full of women‘ which has brought a very noisy amount of chatter across all the social media channels. In Australia, the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott was called a ‘misogynist‘ by the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Ironically, in trying to use the most serious accusation she could, the PM’s word has now been watered down through the public airing. The Australian Macquarie Dictionary is now looking to ‘update’ it’s definition from ‘hating all women’ to ‘an entrenched prejudice against women‘. Many now attacking Mitt would therefore appear qualified to use the same word.

Leaving gender politics, stereotypes and maturity aside, this episode strikes me more as a simple case of some men of a certain age expressing themselves through a lens of the world as it was when they established their sense of the rules of the game. Sure, the rules have moved on, but it is inevitable that in any cross generational conversation that you’re going to get a clash of mindsets.

This raises some interesting challenges for the drive to socialise on the internet. In politics, there are minders and advisors who have a full time job to try and teach their master the language of the day and remain vigilant to recover or ideally prevent the smallest faux pas. The corporate affairs units of most commercial organisations are a much leaner operation than those found in politics and the marketing people pushing social media usually operate at a few degrees of separation removed from company Directors and senior executives.

I read an article recently (forgot where) encouraging large company CEO’s to become more active in social media in order to give their company’s brands a more personal, social, dimension. The author (from a younger generation) was keen to point out that 90% of all social communication is ‘safe’ from any risk to brand reputation. I suspect the reason for that percentage is that there are hardly any large company Directors or senior executive who are exposing themselves through these channels. If there were, I think you’d find a lot more examples of the kind of perceived slip ups that politicians are making.

Initially this could well lead to high consequences but I wonder if, over time, people would start to recognise that these are the views of a person three to four times your age who might have a lot of experience and ability but carries the inevitable weight of a familiarity with the past.

Until social media conversations mature, there will remain an extreme risk that underlying intent may be lost in translation.

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