A few days ago Peter Shankman wrote a provocative post about why one should never hire a “Social Media Expert”. His main point is that

“Social media is just another facet of marketing and customer service. Say it with me. Repeat it until you know it by heart. Bind it as a sign upon your hands and upon thy gates. Social media, by itself, will not help you.”

This was posted on ProgressivExchange and attracted a more than usual amount of attention. A fair number of “social media experts” are on that list. But it’s a fair debate: do we need social media experts in the nonprofit/organizing/campaign space? When? How?

Nonprofit and political communication staff can’t be assumed to know when or how to use social media, online ads, online video, a microsite, or any other kind of nontraditional, digital strategy. I’ve met them. Here are four typical responses from insufficiently skilled communicators:

  1. Hire a trusted consulting firm (who might be clueless as well) and pay them loads of money for advice one could have Googled and execution that a junior staffer could have done – for a whole lot less.
  2. Reject unfamiliar methodologies.
  3. Encourage staff to present digital strategies, but then reject them, so they can take credit for internal crowd-sourcing while still following (2) above.
  4. Read up on the literature and try their best, but since they only have 100 hours doing this ‘stuff’ they combine relative ignorance with alpha male self-confidence, wasting time and money as they themselves seek to master digital strategy on the fly, ensuring that the organization only advances as fast as they can acquire new skills and insights. (In other words, slowly and inefficiently!)

None of these four options are indefensible. They just aren’t as good as what real leaders do. Here are the alternatives:

  1. Look for a consulting firm or consultant who really has expertise in digital strategy, and learn how to tell the difference between those who get this field and those that don’t, between the traditional strategic PR and media consulting and the Fission/Rad Campaigns of the world. It ain’t the same thing, not by a long shot.
  2. Cultivate a digital strategist internally from your board or a staff member and cede power to them over their areas of expertise. Acquirethe skill of managing an expert, as you would with an attorney or accountant, instead of arrogantly deciding to become that kind of expert yourself. (Arrogant = because you aren’t actually doing to spend the time it takes.)
  3. Crowdsource questions about strategy only if you or someone else in the room has the expertise to evaluate them properly. Absent that element, why waste everyone’s time?
  4. By all means, build your own expertise in digital strategy. Just try and remember the 10,000 hours rule. Someone who has spent five years doing this will know more than you. And after five years, they will have ten years, so even if you changed your career to become a digital strategist, they still might have something to teach you. Be humble and aware of your core competencies, use experts – including social media consultants – judiciously. Don’t force your entire organization to be as slow as you might be.

After sending a version of this response to the list, a bunch of folks wrote to me appreciating how these approaches are laid out. What do you think?

Before you answer, consider viewing this oldie but a goodie about those damn social media experts: