Keil Hubert: Internet Drownproofing

Why must you pass an exam before you can drive a car, but not before you represent your company on the Internet? Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that it’s probably a good idea to assess your senior reps’ level of Internet savvy.

82632210Viacom’s ‘Comedy Central’ television network seems to have a breakaway hit on its hands with their new inprov comedy show @midnight …at least, it’s a hit according to the Hubert household. Of course, networks rarely listen to us; we were mad about Joss Whedon’s Firefly and its network overlords burked it before it could complete a season. That said, the new @midnight project has become a can’t-miss program for us since it premiered back in October. My boys and I love it because it combines three potent ingredients: (1) Nerd-lord Chris Hardwick, (2) Internet hilarity, and (3) nerd culture. My boys stay up late to watch each episode; I have to record it since I get up at 4 a.m. to go to work, so I’m always a day behind. [1]

The reason why this show ‘hits’ for us is that it speaks directly to us in our native language (Nerdish). The show’s setup is simple: Mr Hardwick presents something that recently (in the last day or two) manifested on the Internet or in popular culture, and challenges his three comedian guests to make mockery of it in the form of some established Internet phenomenon. These ‘games’ in the show are strictly arbitrary conceits; they force the challengers to work within a known convention. Example games have included structures like interpretations of tweets, creation of tweets that correspond to an acerbic hashtag, ridiculous Yelp and Amazon reviews, responses to Craigslist ads, humiliating Google searches, and so on.

Even if you’re not amused by the show’s format or the comedians’ droll comments, there’s a darned good reason why this new show is potentially important to you and to your business: it can serve as a wickedly effective test of a viewer’s cultural literacy for all things Internet related.

Try it! Invite your CEO into your cubicle and play her a few minutes from the previous night’s episode. When Mr Hardwick makes a quip about answering a Reddit ‘AMA,’ watch your boss’s reactions closely …

If she smiles at the reference, that’s probably a very positive indicator for the long-term health of your company; it suggests that your boss is reasonably familiar with the modern Internet. If she goes blank on a given reference, that can be okay too; If she asks you what an AMA is or what Reddit is, you’re golden. Curiosity indicates that your boss is willing and able to learn. I love an executive who isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know.’

But what if your boss doesn’t recognize the reference and bristles at finding herself suddenly out of her depth? Or dismisses it out of hand as childish? Or grows angrily defensive at being thought ignorant? Those are critical indicators that your company may have real trouble ahead. No matter how good your products or services might be, your customers will be talking smack about your company on all of the Internet realms that get referenced on @midnight. If you don’t know a place exists, you can’t possibly know how to avoid accidentally embarrassing yourself there. [2]

This isn’t necessarily a ‘quit your job and move the hinterlands’ situation, though. Context matters. There’s no reason why the owner/operator of a lorry painting business in rural Perth necessarily needs to have advanced knowledge of online marketing or customer interaction websites in order to provide a good service at profitable margins. If all you sell is weird crafts on Etsy, you can probably live your entire professional life without ever having critiqued a ‘blog post.

The general rule of thumb I’ve always heard when it comes to marketing and customer relationship management is that every doubling of size of your company demands a doubling of effort into maintaining your business’s reputation. When you’re small, you can get by with just a simple website. Double in size, and you add online sales to your site. Double again and start tweeting. Double again and create a Facebook site where customers can build a community around your brand. With enough growth, you’ll need a dedicated team to monitor and react to brand dissatisfaction events on dozens of different platforms. It never truly ends … As a prime example, the President of the USA held a Reddit AMA last year.

This can be a daunting prospect for a small company. Once you get large enough to have an actual IT bloke on salary, you can usually also hire a ‘net savvy specialist to take care of the company’s online presence and customer interaction. So long as the company has a competent and responsible navigator managing the outfit’s online activities, and so long as the less technically-proficient employees agree to follow their expert’s trusted counsel, things will generally work out. Someone is minding your flank, and works at protecting the company from itself. Over time, that team can grow to cover different fronts.

When engaging on the YouTube comments front, the temptation is always there to simply give up and nuke the site from orbit.

When engaging on the YouTube comments front, the temptation is always there to simply give up and nuke the site from orbit.

Once you’re a large company, however, you have no excuse for ceding the reputation battlefield. You simply must have dedicated specialists and volunteer reserve ambassadors on call to maintain the integrity of your brand. Having a cadre of specialists on the payroll is not enough, however.

The larger the company is, the more important it is that the people steering the ship be aware of all the ways that their thoughtless comments can run the company (metaphorically) aground on the merciless reefs of public opinion. The more that a corporate leader knows about public relations, marketing, customer relationship management, and brand management, the more likely your company is to avoid creating (or, worse, exacerbating) an accidental scandal. Knowing how to behave responsibly online is becoming an indispensible skill for anyone of executive ambition in the modern world. Failure to regulate your self-expression can have wicked consequences for your own career, and can damage your company’s brand in the process.

It certainly helps a great deal if the boss understands how to function professionally and responsibly on the Internet, just as it’s important for the boss to dress, act and speak like a grownup when appearing in public. Executives’ actions are always under scrutiny, and embarrassing mistakes will be swiftly communicated to the world (often to the company’s detriment). For the truly awful mistakes, expect a legion of very sharp critics to sink their fangs into the story and never let go.

It’s easier now than it’s ever been before to commit unintentional career suicide – often in 140 characters or less. Silly mistakes are harder than ever to cover up, because the Internet never forgets a good gaffe. That’s why I believe there ought to be a minimum standard for Internet literacy that our senior leaders are required to meet before they’re allowed to move into their shiny new corner office.

We already think this way in other qualifications. As an example, I was building a Dot Com company back during the end of the bubble when we discovered that the company’s CFO had no idea how to perform basic math in Microsoft Excel. When the man responsible for the company’s financial security demonstrated that he lacked even primary school level proficiency in an essential tool required by his position, the board decided that the fellow was unfit to serve in a financial leadership capacity. The CFO’s firing had the potential to be hugely embarrassing for the company since its entire business plan was to ‘IPO’ as soon as possible after fielding a product. If (when) the markets discovered that the company’s key leaders weren’t minimally competent in their essential functions, the IPO would likely fail. Discussions soon began about ‘testing’ all of the director-level employees and above to make sure that each employee was actually qualified for their position before something embarrassing was revealed that might derail the company’s initial stock offering.

She certainly looks like the ideal CTO, but can she edit a table in PowerPoint?

She certainly looks like the ideal CTO, but can she edit a table in PowerPoint?

I submit that we need to apply a similar ‘minimum competency’ test to our director-level-and-above employees so that we can evaluate how competent they are to engage in essential online communications methods, techniques, and self-regulation. Challenges might include:

  • Post a minimum of 100 consecutive tweets with zero manifestations of bigoted or abusive comments.
  • Maintain a social networking profile (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.) for six consecutive months with no mention or evidence of illegal drugs use, criminal conduct, or public nudity.
  • Address 50 online complaints without once intentionally insulting a customer.
  • Use corporate e-mail for an entire year with zero manifestations of sexually, racially, or religiously harassing content.
  • Make a five-minute video and upload it to YouTube. For the next 90 days, read aloud every new comment left for the video each day and refuse to retaliate.

Anyone who can’t pass these basic proficiency exams needs to get sent back down for remedial training. This isn’t meant to be a lifetime ban; simply a barrier to entry. We do the same thing when we send Boy Scouts out on a boat: we make them prove that they can swim before we put them into a situation where they might find themselves in danger of drowning.

Until we can develop a standardised system to evaluate our employees’ general Internet survival competency, the next best thing that we can do to protect our organizations’ reputations and financial security is to take measures to assess our key employees’ general awareness of online culture. If/when we find a glaring lack of awareness, we have a duty to mitigate this gap through guided exposure, meaningful explanation, and patient mentoring. We owe it to our peers and superiors to teach one another about the professional dangers of clog dancing in a minefield before there’s an incident.

????????

The CFO’s earnest argument that he thought ‘government auditor’ and ‘slime weasel’ used the same words in Welsh did nothing to repair the damage done to the firm’s credibility.

As an immediate action, send the link to this episode of @midnight to your boss and watch her closely while she watches the clip. Take notes. Every manifestation of non-recognition and bristling indicates that you probably have some coaching to do. Invest in a little pre-emptive education now, and save everyone a ton of heartache down the road.

Just one word of warning … make sure that you get the joke before you try and explain it to someone else!

[1] I have the same problem with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Someday, I’d like to have a work schedule that allows me to see those as they actually air.

[2] I wouldn’t expect your CXO to actually recognize the reference. I walked around a tech company the day that I drafted this piece and asked ten random employees if they knew what a ‘Reddit AMA’ was. No one knew about Reddit’s ‘Ask Me Anything’ events. Only 3 of the 10 people that I asked even knew what Reddit was.

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil-Hubert-featured

His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.

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