Why Brands Need a New Kind of Leader

When it comes to social media, Ford is an admitted neophyte. It dipped its toe in the water with its well-received “Bold moves” campaign in 2006, and it hired a social-media consulting firm to create blog-friendly press releases. But for the most part, it has remained on the sidelines when it comes to using new technology tools to foster two-way conversations with customers and its employees.

The company hopes to change that, in part with the recent hiring of a social-media expert, Scott Monty. The well-known blogger and exec at new-media shop Crayon is trading a “virtual company” of a handful of people for a 250,000-employee monolith that’s struggling to reinvent itself.

“They needed an internal evangelist, someone who can work within the company to bring all the disparate groups together,” said Monty, whose background includes a stint as an account director at b-to-b agency PJA Advertising + Marketing. Monty’s new boss, vp of communications Ray Day, agrees: “Frankly, we were behind the times. We need to leapfrog where we are and move really quickly.”

Monty is one of a new breed at Fortune 500 companies. Social-media experts are in high demand as companies attempt to figure out how to adapt how they talk to customers and even among themselves. Companies like Ford, Intel, Dell and Pepsi have concluded the best way to change is by bringing in a social-media czar to lead their strategy.

The hiring of dedicated teams reflect the rising importance of social media in companies. Once thought of as an interesting new media channel, social media is increasingly seen as a catalyst for changing how companies operate. It points to a new corporate structure that favors open over closed, dialogue over monologue, and decentralized power over command and control.

“The biggest challenge is moving away from thinking about it as marketing and PR,” said Peter Kim, a Forrester Research analyst. “It’s about product development, it’s about IT. It’s got to cut across all functions of the company.”

After hearing many clients tell him they are not prepared internally, Kim decided to join a startup that’s focused on helping large companies organize better for social media. Backed with $50 million from Austin Ventures, the still-unnamed company created by Razorfish founder Jeff Dachis hopes to repeat the trick the Web shop did in the mid- 1990s: sell consulting and software to companies looking, in this case, to harness the power of social media. A fast-food company, for instance, could use social computing technologies to tap the wisdom of its thousands of young front-line employees to develop new products.

“This is a major shift in how businesses operate,” Dachis said. “Businesses are inherently antisocial. … They’re silo oriented and they don’t talk to each other.”

It was this realization that led Ford to bring in Monty to lead a five-person social- media team. Monty’s group will reside within corporate communications at Ford, but its work will extend into other parts of the company, said Day. The diverse charter of the group is evidenced in the 50 candidates he interviewed over the past six months: some were in PR, but many more came from marketing or even technology backgrounds.

The risk of specialized social-media czars is it becomes yet another marketing function, said Dachis. Indeed, some companies approach the role with a definite focus on finding new ways to market to consumers. Pepsi, for instance, describes its nascent social-media team in a job posting as “responsible for reaching new audiences, bloggers, Facebookers and other key influentials that live in the online world.” (A PepsiCo rep declined to make an executive available to discuss the role, e-mailing a statement that the company is “willing to put more resources into new media as it evolves to ensure that our message is heard.”)

The approach is probably not going to work, Dachis said. “That’s executing your social-media strategy with a monologue,” he said. Moreover, companies risk making kneejerk moves on the basis of the flood of attention social media has gotten, said Shiv Singh, vp, social media & global strategic initiatives at Avenue A/Razorfish. “I think it’s panic and a recognition that something needs to be done,” he said. “Marketers don’t know where to start.”

If there’s a blueprint for newbies like Ford, it can be found in the IT industry. There, companies like Dell, Cisco and Intel have built up social-media teams over the past 18 months. At Intel, Bob Duffy leads a five-person team that is trying to change how Intel talks to its customers. Intel began the group in late 2006. For Duffy, the challenge is to move from a singular corporate voice to hundreds of voices of Intel’s greatest asset: its engineers. The company has embarked on an ambitious project to connect customers with its engineers. The idea: Intel will build credibility among the tough-to-impress IT crowd by putting its engineers out front, rather than a media-trained spokesperson. So far, 150 engineers have been selected to contribute as bloggers on Intel sites and on other tech sites.

“If you’re going to be effective, you have to speak with a voice of authority and trust,” Duffy said. “That doesn’t come from marketing; it comes from subject-matter experts.”

Intel’s social-media team is “the glue that makes that conversation happen,” said Augustine Fou, svp of digital strategy at MRM Worldwide, the Interpublic Group agency that works with Intel. “Engineers normally don’t talk to marketing people except at the holiday party.”