Unspun was recently invited, along with some bloggers from the region, to participate in a workshop. Funded by a major European nation as a “development grant” and run by a contractor, it was ostensibly to help contribute views to how a regional institution could use social media to better engage its audience.

It was a two-day session that left Unspun at the end of it all more skeptical than ever about development funding and social media consultants offering a quick fix to communications challenges, which usually arise because of cultural and strategic issues.

The said institution has been around for decades but over the past decade or so had lost its relevance to the citizens in this region. It is perceived as a dull talkshop of bureaucrats and politicians where lots get said and few things get done. It is conservative, boring and anything but engaging, especially to the  younger generation.

So enter rig European nation with its noble intention to help develop this institution. One of the ways it has decided to help develop this institution is to make it more accessible and engaging through social media. Like many other nations it has a funding body and called for a tender for a contractor to implement this intent. The tender was won by a consultancy from – wonder of wonders – the same country as the European nation!

So consultancy sets about its task, one of the first of which is to set up a forum to justify all the money they will spend erecting social media platforms for the institution.

This is where Unspun unwitting comes in. Being a blogger of no repute Unspun was naturally flattered when he was invited to contribute his views to the workshop, so he committed two days to help out the institution. The workshop, which was put together in a week or two, was also attended by several bloggers from around the region. That’s where thing went downhill.

From the get go the workshop was run as if it was a given that the institution should have a Facebook page, a Twitter account and other social platforms. Unspun, smelling a spin, pipped up: “Hang on, shouldn’t we be discussing the institution’s strategic direction, who it needs to reach, the technographics of its audiences and its social media objectives before deciding on the social platforms?”

A moment of silence.  Then the concession. “Ah yes, good point, we should at some point look into it…” And then the gloss over: “So which platforms are best…and Facebook…should we have that feature….”

The workshop concluded with no definite conclusion of what needed to be done for the institution, which had very little idea about social media and how to use it. Unspun had a Kafkaesque feeling that social media platforms would be built, come what may.

This is sad because consultants are doing a disservice to their clients by positioning social media as a quick fix to their problems.

The Regional Institution’s communications problems are rooted in its future and conventions. Too ugh red tape, too many conservative mandarins calling the shots, fear of the new – in this case social media, and fear of losing control – which is inevitable if you wade into the social media pool.

If the consultants were ernest in helping the Regional Institution to develop in this area they would have done well to address the root causes through, to borrow the Regional Institution’s parlance – confidence building measures, training programs to increase the comfort level of crusty bureaucrats to the dynamics of social media, and a pilot program on an innocuous area that is non political to start things off.

And if these baby steps are successful then they can start to use social media beyond its listening functions to begin engaging their audiences. But there was even a deep misunderstanding of “engagement” in the workshop, as if once you use social media you automatically engage your audience. This is a fallacy. There are different types of engagement from talking to energizing, engaging and embracing.And if you don’t get it right you are a bit like pissing in the dark.

Unspun let the workshop more skeptical than ever about social media consultants on the whole. They usually talk up the potency of social media and play down the fact that like other channels of communication, social media is merely a tool. Tools are very useful if you’ve though through what you want to do and what effect you want to achieve before using them. It is laborious, hard work but necessary if you want to get things right and effective.

Clients of social media consultants would do well to avoid quick fixes and panaceas when it comes to social media. As we always tell out clients, the technology is the last thing you should consider when using social media. You first need to get your thinking right, be clear about who you want to reach and what you want to do with them before considering which platform to use.