When gurus go bad

Web thinkers are trend jumping one-track back-slappers whose influence over senior executives can seriously disrupt online management, David Bowen says.

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Part of my job is to follow what other people are saying. A lot of them are ‘gurus’ – they sit, they think, they write – and my irritation has built to bursting point. So I have sat, I have thought, and I have written.

Gurus can’t resist a bandwagon

The current set of rolling stock has been repainted in ‘Social’ livery. I read just now that ‘Social Relationship Management’ is the latest thing. I prefer Social Everything to its predecessor, Everything 2.0, but it is a still a cliché that has precious little meaning. I can only infer that gurus don’t have memories (they probably prefer to say they don’t look backwards).

Gurus love one another

The number of comments that start ‘Great post!’ is quite depressing. There is almost no argument or even scepticism. They just encourage each other. Bad idea.

Gurus confuse senior managers

The people trying to make things happen – online managers and the like – are struggling to use the web as best they can. They are short of resources, in permanent battle with IT, fighting skirmishes with lawyers and trying to get their bosses to understand that online is no longer a marginal channel. The bosses don’t listen to them, but they do listen to gurus, and demand to know why the company is not aboard the latest bandwagon. As a consultant I benefit from the law that says outsiders are taken more seriously than insiders. But it does mean I have a responsibility to understand what my clients actually need. And not to get the top executives all excited about things they don’t understand.

Gurus have one-track minds

A particular problem is where they are focused on the customer – as in people who buy things – rather than the full range of people with which the company should be communicating. You could call them ‘customers’, if you like, but it has to be in a much broader sense than consumers: investors, journalists, government officials, jobseekers, NGOs, the general public and more. This thinking has led one celebrated guru to conclude that the corporate site must not be written by the company, because the company will provide only one-sided hype. Much better that it should be a place where conversation can take place, with real opinions – positive or negative – that can truly be trusted.
It’s an appealing argument, but it’s wrong. If the corporate website stops being the official mouthpiece of the company, then where do people go to find out what it thinks? As reputation management becomes an ever more hair-raising business – thanks largely to blogs and Twitter – it is essential that a company has a communication channel it can call its own. Yes, it can put its views out on blogs and Twitter as well, but they should all point firmly back to the corporate site. It’s no coincidence that news agencies will quote from corporate sites, but not from blogs.
The two views are not mutually incompatible. I like the idea of letting customers into product areas, but do not confuse these areas with the corporate website as a whole. Take the broad view, not just the customer view.
Of course, you could have a guru who is obsessed with another user group; but in general these are quiet-living fellows who understand that their obsession must live alongside others. In my experience investor relations gurus, CSR gurus and the like are a more modest and thoughtful lot.

Gurus love Big Ideas

I’ve just been a reading a blog piece calling for companies to set up a Social Media Department, to go alongside IT and marketing (it should be equal to the marketing department, apparently). Wow, what a lovely big idea. But should social media not be run by the same people who run the website? Of course. Big ideas are lovely, and important, but they have to be right or they can cause real problems – especially if senior management falls for them.

First published 04 November, 2009
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