Thor for Social Media Executive Champion?


Thor, the god of Norse mythology. “Thor’s battle with the Ettins” (1872), painting by Mårten Eskil Winge. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Read almost any social media book and you’ll quickly arrive at a certain piece of advice that’s beginning to set my teeth on edge. It’s the requirement for an Executive Champion.

Invariably, these books recommend the CEO fill the Champion role, and apparently one of the Champion’s duties is to swoop in like Thor with his hammer and smash any impasse, leaving the social media team a clear path through the rubble.

Here are five key reasons why this isn’t an effective social media strategy:

Most social media books are written by experts in social media, not the corporate world
While many of the social media strategists who’ve penned books work with corporate clients, this is not the same as navigating a corporate hierarchy from the inside. They simply don’t have the experience of maintaining effective working relationships in highly matrixed departments and across all the business units involved in supporting a strong social media program.

When you need a “decider” in a lean, fast-paced entrepreneurial company, the CEO is often the go-to guy because he’s also the person who developed the software or the idea the company was founded upon. There are few layers between the CEO and the teams engaged in key initiatives. Not so in an established corporation. The social media team operates several pay-strata below the members of the senior team, much less the CEO. And there are established processes for solving issues that involve starting with your team and seeking your immediate supervisor’s help and approval before the supervisor (not you) takes it to the next level (which won’t be the CEO’s level).

Thor needs to be capable of influencing the C-suite, but, in the long tradition of superheroes, he isn’t one of them
In his book, The Social Media Strategist, Christopher Barger, who’s led social media programs for IBM and GM, describes the Executive Champion as a corporate player who:

  • sells the “social media vision to the highest levels of business leadership” and explains “why resources allocated to it are being wisely spent;”
  • credibly takes this vision to the rest of the organization;
  • enforces “consistency among social media, marketing, and communications strategies;” and
  • provides the budget for your social media program or has the savvy to “credibly and effectively go ‘tin-cupping’ through the rest of the organization to acquire that budget.”

That’s a tall order, but inside most companies, there’s a VP with the credibility, likeability and practicality to drive agreement around each of those requirements.

You’ll be lucky to get one impasse-bashing favor from the CEO in your entire career (if that)
If you actually managed to get your issue in front of the CEO – say Legal refuses to allow spontaneous posting to social media sites without approvals or IT won’t budget for resources or bandwidth – guess what she’d tell you? “Find a way to work it out,” is what you’ll hear as she directs you to the door.

CEOs wisely understand that their role isn’t down in the weeds of day-to-day decision-making. They also know they musn’t play favorites. Running to the CEO to tattletale about your right to tweet without a three-week Legal review will only serve to make Legal irate. Likewise the IT department.

If the CEO does extend you a favor – and that’s a big, Thor-sized IF – you’ll spend the rest of your days at the company, trying to prove that you’re capable of making future decisions on your own. You’ll be forever under the hammer, and that’s a very uncomfortable – and ineffective – place to work from.

If Thor handles a disagreement for you, it will be the last time anyone supports you in the company
The real corporate world isn’t like the one portrayed in old comics, where Jimmy Olsen becomes a made guy at the Daily Planet because Superman acknowledges him after saving the world. Run to the CEO to solve an issue, and no one will trust you again. Your ideas won’t be pushed forward, work you needed done yesterday will slow to a snail’s pace, your meetings will be sparsely attended, your achievements begrudged, your failures snickered over. You’ll be the Loki of your company.

It takes a village to manage an effective social media program – not a demi-god
One reason non-corporate types put dibs on the CEO for Executive Champion is because they believe he or she has the ability to rise above the scrabbling that goes on around ownership of social media. You’ve probably seen hundreds of articles like this: Is it PR or HR? Marketing or IT? Customer Service or Advertising?

Actually, it’s all of them. As Christopher Barger notes, “territorialism” doesn’t work for social media. “The reality is,” Barger writes, “each function brings a different strength and a different weakness to social media activity. In an ideal situation, these strengths and functions are brought together as sort of a hybrid function operating together and directing the rest of the business.”

It’s the team’s job to rely on the cross-functional expertise in the room to solve problems. If they can’t – with all that brainpower at the table – then even Thor’s mighty hammer isn’t going to solve the problems in that social media program.