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Who Owns Social Media?

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Who should own social media? It's a question asked by a lot of organizations. I've heard of two schools of thought: One says social media "belongs" to the employees. The other says it belongs to the PR department or another team that knows the "rules" of the brand and is authorized to communicate with the world on behalf of that brand. So, is it one or the other, or a healthy blend of both?

Every brand is after word of mouth, which is usually created by loyal fans and customers. Most of the time, employees are a brand's No. 1 fans -- and many of them realize that as part of their marketing efforts they need to establish long-term relationships with customers. But how do employees know what the best practices are around building these digital relationships? There are a lot of things for them to know, including which tools to use, which strategies and tactics to deploy, how to correctly communicate the brand's voice, and whether they should "listen" to online conversations before jumping in. The list goes on.

I believe any employee who engages with a customer is a brand ambassador. Without their engagement, relationship-building would be less effective. But I also know that making social media experts out of all such employees is an impossible task. However, you can still empower them by giving them the relevant guidelines and tools in order to engage effectively online and without risk to your brand.

I believe the best approach is to create a small team of people to provide guidance. You could call the team the Social Media Center of Excellence (the name we use at Intel) or any other name that works. This team would sit centrally in the marketing organization and know about all things social, including: the latest social trend; the most effective tools; any impactful case study; other brands' experiences (good and bad); key influencers; and examples of what did and did not work for your company in the past.

The team can provide value in many ways. For one, it could put together social media guidelines and develop an overarching strategy in support of key business and marketing objectives. It could also create point-of-view documents on the latest industry and social trends, and show how they would impact your organization. Other ideas: the team could record best practices and develop playbooks; research and recommend the best tools to use, whether they're for listening and monitoring or content distribution, and help roll out these tools throughout the company; provide recommendations on the best social media agencies with which to engage; produce a crisis-management plan; and represent your company's leadership at industry events.

According to this model, activation is still driven by the teams/groups responsible for a specific product/program, but they are now well equipped with the relevant information to ensure the effectiveness of communications goes up and the risk to the brand goes down. The strength of such a team is its ability to work closely with all of the key stakeholders within the organization (HR, PR, legal, privacy, Web teams, etc) and ensuring that whatever guidance is issued to employees, it takes into consideration all of the concerns and requirements of these stakeholders.

The other reason this model works well is because everything in social media moves fast. It's easy to get distracted by the next shiny object (the next popular tool) and it's hard for every single person to keep up to date on all the changes taking place. The presence of a team like the Social Media Center of Excellence helps employees make sense of what will be beneficial and impactful for the brand in the long term and what might not.

There is one thing to remember about this model, though. The bigger your organization is, the harder it is to ensure that the existence of this function is well known organization-wide. You will have to put an internal plan in place to educate all departments on the advantages such a team has to offer. But in my opinion it's a minor price to pay for the value the team would provide.

So back to our question: Who owns social media? The answer: every single person who engages in online conversations with customers. How impactful this engagement is will depend on the support the organization puts in place to help enable its employees to be successful.

Ekaterina Walter is a social media strategist for Intel. She can be reached at ekaterina.walter@intel.com and @ekaterinawalter.