Leadership, and the NPR Firing Fiasco

Juan Williams had one of those “transparent moments.” He said something that sounded politically-incorrect (when extracted from its context). He wandered off-script from the acceptable speech codes of his politically-partisan bosses. He was diagnosed as a bigot and summarily fired by those paragons of tolerance and free speech, National Public Radio.

In some countries, leadership and censorship have always been affiliated. But here…?

Society’s grievance groups will always call for the scalp of anyone that speaks uncomfortable truth in plain terms, because they make no distinction between honest humanity and evil bigotry. But radical Muslim clerics didn’t even have a chance to issue a fatwa on Williams before the imams at NPR tossed the apostate under the bus. After all, he’d committed a capital offense – being himself. Showing some transparency that didn’t conform to the NPR template.

And isn’t that what effective leadership is all about? Keeping the troops in line and punishing those who violate the canons of controlled speech?

On the Twitter #LeadershipChat tonight, we’ll be discussing how leadership operates in this dawning era of increasingly-public transparency. There are new challenges in the area of corporate leadership, brought on by the transparency encouraged (and sometimes, the exposure forced) by our always-on, unfiltered media networks – including our rapidly-growing social networks.

Juan Williams revealed something of himself and paid a price. NPR certainly exposed something of itself and is paying a price in the public discourse. So how do we lead, and how do we express our own humanity, in an environment where transparency may clash with (in)tolerance?

Read what my co-moderator Lisa Petrilli has to say about this topic. Then join us Tuesday night (8 pm ET) for #LeadershipChat on Twitter (hint: one very easy way to participate is by using a client like Tweetchat. Just log in, read the stream of thoughts that are being shared, and feel free to chime in with your reactions and questions.)

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Who’s Behind the Avatar?

My friend Toby Bloomberg is collaborating with John Cass to ask a question about transparency – namely, what sort of transparency needs to be in place if “outside” agents are feeding social media content for a client brand?

From Toby’s blog post:

Social media is a hungry beast that to succeed demands content…PR agencies, advertising agencies and social media consultants are seizing an opportunity to carve a service niche from their time pressed, staff starved clients. Yes, the agencies are stepping in and taking over the role and responsibilities of implementing social media initiatives….but unlike an ad campaign or dropping a media release where no one really cares what name you use, social media is supposed to be different. Tweets and posts are supposed to be from the real people who are working for the brand…However, since on Facebook and often on Twitter “no one knows your name” seems to be the acceptable norm, 2010 will see more. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it just fact of social media marketing life? Does it really matter?

I’ll toss in a few brief thoughts:

1. Since there is an expectation set currently in place with social media (real people interacting with real people), and since violating that expectation leads to a lot of unwanted on-line attention, it’s not wise for a brand to play “let’s pretend” in social media platforms – at least, currently.

2. There’s nothing wrong with outsourcing expertise to “feed the beast.” Life is full of outsourcing. Just be honest about it.

3. I’d recommend that brands who outsource the maintenance of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. establish a “brand” identity on those platforms instead of trying to pretend that there is one person behind the account. I’m OK with, say, TiVo having a brand account – as long as it is positioned as a brand account. I’m also OK with the TiVo account being TiVo Shanan if Shanan is for real (she is, apparently – and very nice!). If the platform is going to provide info and interactions from a team, fine – let’s just have accurate expectations.

4. These platforms are communication channels and we all have to take a deep breath and have a reasonable view of how companies will use them. I happen to think that the companies who advance with real personality in their social media endeavors will likely do best, but not every company is prepared out of the gate to have designated in-house personnel to “feed the beast.” We don’t need to beat these folks with a purist club and accuse them of being inauthentic – unless they’re being inauthentic! Let people get their feet wet, and outsource as they must. We should encourage brands to use social media responsibly, realizing that those who abuse it by a lack of transparency will be outed in time, and the lesson will be learned!

My 2 cents – your thoughts?

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