Social Media for business great idea or a disaster waiting to happen?

John Maeda wrote a fantastic post last week- Leaders Should strive for Clarity, Not Transparency. In it he relays an incident where he was approached at a conference, by a stranger talking about how he has used his blog and other social media to communicate better. The stranger says:

 “That’s never going to work. But hey, if it works, other presidents will be doing it too I’m sure. But we’re waiting to see what happens with you first.”

I think this reflects the attitude of many entrepreneurs, managers and business people who can appreciate the growing trend and influence of social media but struggle to really harness it for themselves or see how it could practically be integrated with their own business strategies.

The current mood of the masses – whether you’re looking at consumers, investors or even business prospects seems to be reluctance and skepticism. Few, if any, truly predicted the recession and even those who did, did not foresee the extent of the impact this would have on global economies. So naturally people become more wary of what they perceive as a more changeable and less predictable world.

To address this, businesses may try to demonstrate transparency but as John succinctly writes what is needed is not necessarily barefaced transparency, which can lead to further confusion and misinterpretation, but rather clarity in the issues that really matter.

When approaching social media the same is true. Many people will struggle to find a balance between the elements of transparency, acceptable business communications and adding real value through their social media strategy. This is perhaps the most common error you see in blogs – the desire to do it and be seen to be using the latest tool, before the clarity of thought in what actually needs to be said.

On the other hand, many businesses can and should be harnessing social media. As Jeff Jarvis, respected media commentator, regular blogger and professor at City University New York put in a video on Business Week –

“Don’t be scared of making mistakes- you need to be free to fail. And when you do admit it.

When asked whether businesses should attempt to control their employees, he responded “I think you should have one law : Don’t be stupid. Your employees are always out there talking about you. So a little bit of education goes a long way”

So is social media a brilliant idea for business or a disaster waiting to happen?

The evidence suggests that although some companies are getting it wrong, (e.g. Habitats well publicised twitterfail) and these mistakes will undoubtedly continue to happen, the potential benefits and opportunity is huge. It just needs companies to relinquish a bit of control and empower their staff to make the most of it.