Businessmen and women in your 50s unite. All this social media stuff is for kids. FaceTube and Twittering; who gets it? There isn’t any business benefit and it reduces productivity. Staff should be banned from using it during working hours; after all they’re just talking to their mates, promoting themselves to potential employers. Right?

Wrong. Albeit a not uncommon perspective. But as people of a certain age, we can be forgiven can’t we? After all it’s still a bit new fangled anyway. We can wait until it really catches on before we have to worry about it. Plus, we’ve all got our LinkedIn profile, which is social media for business people after all. Wrong again. Facebook is 10 years old this year; Twitter is seven. And things are moving fast. I read the other day (in an old fashioned newspaper) that it took 38 years for radio to reach an audience of 50 million; it took Facebook a year and Twitter just nine months. LinkedIn has its place but if you think just accepting contact requests is job done; think again.

Coping with change

What’s the problem with social media and the middle-aged executive? The sneering tech-savvy youth of today will dismiss it as ‘old dogs and new tricks ‘ but let’s just think about that for a minute. The scale of change those in their forties and fifties have experienced, is unprecedented. Never mind the spectacular advances of Facebook and Twitter, this generation has seen the introduction of the Internet, email, the mobile phone, computers, electric typewriters, colour television, DVDs, video and even the pocket calculator. And it all seems like just yesterday doesn’t it?

It’s all very well being born in an era when Smartphones, games consoles, apps and tablets are basic tools but when you’ve been brought up with logarithm tables, try learning all that stuff for the first time and more to the point, keeping pace with change – just when you think you’re on top of things, the next thing comes along, and at increasingly shorter intervals. It’s exhausting; especially when the next thing turns out to be the wrong thing (Betamax anybody?).

So we can be pleased with ourselves; not only have we survived the technical revolution, we have proved ourselves capable of dealing with enormous change in a way that our young colleagues have yet to do. Of course the same challenges will eventually beset our fresh-faced detractors and we’ll have the last laugh but for now guys we have to shape up and go again.

Here are a couple of things to think about:

“Customers that engage with companies over social media spend 20-40% more money with those companies than other companies.”
Bain & Company

“By 2014 organisations that refuse to communicate with customers via social media will face the same wrath from customers as those that ignore today’s basic expectation that they respond to emails and phone calls.”
Gartner Inc.

Technology isn’t the problem; it’s our behaviour

As with most things, technology isn’t the real problem; it’s culture and behaviour. The biggest hurdle is the way the middle-aged have been programmed to conduct themselves for more than three decades. They (we) are anti social; un social as the social marketers call it.

In my experience, middle-aged men are the most resistant to social media engagement. Is that really surprising? They have not been brought up to share their private thoughts with friends and family, never mind perfect strangers. My middle-aged male friends on Facebook are but a handful and unless there’s a particular geographical dimension, they use it so infrequently a carrier pigeon would be as useful. I’m not suggesting Facebook as the preferred social medium for business; it isn’t. I’m merely using it to illustrate the nature of the problem

To a degree, it’s the great British reserve. In business, this is compounded by years of corporate secrecy and control; rigid management structures and hierarchy; clearly defined channels of communication; and critically, no devolution of responsibility. The grey-templed executives I know are mostly uncomfortable with unauthorised external communication; they are paranoid about security and what their competitors know and say about them; and their natural reaction to criticism is to be defensive. Outbound messages often have to be put through a lengthy approval process by which time they have been sanitised to within an inch of their lives and are too late to be effective anyway. Naturally, this is the culture they impose on the rest of organisation

And the point is?

Building trust with your customers is fundamental to business success. Moreso in an era when trust has been betrayed by so many of those institutions we had such faith in. Trust can only be built on open and regular communication – that means engaging with people not broadcasting to them.

And therein lies the point of social media. Of course you don’t have control over what’s being said about you but you never really did, did you? At least now, you know what is being said because it’s visible – and you have the opportunity to respond. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Treat every tweet and post as an opportunity.

Time to socialise

A survey by global PR consultancy, Edelman, measures attitudes about the state of trust in business, government and the media. It shows that while business leaders communicate vertically, the rest of the world is communicating horizontally. And we have to get our heads around that. We have to change. That doesn’t mean that all middle-aged executives will or even should, become ardent Facebookers and Tweeters overnight, but they do have to recognise things need to happen differently.

So don’t dismiss social media; don’t just give it to the youngest person in the office or to the intern and think it’s done. Look at the benefits organisations are getting from social media, recognise the danger of not harnessing it for your business and at least get some basic understanding of how it works. Then find somebody to help you put together a plan, which integrates social media with your overall communications strategy, set some rules in place and get on with it.

It’s not too late but the clock’s ticking.

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