Social Media: What Every Senior Leader Must Know

Interview with Prof. Sree Sreenivasan of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
Social Media: What Every Senior Leader Must Know
Social media aren't just coming - they're here. And senior leaders need to understand how to maximize Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other popular sites, as well as how to protect their organizations from very real security risks.

In an exclusive interview, Prof. Sree Sreenivasan, Dean of Student Affairs at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, discusses:

  • What's most misunderstood about social media;
  • How organizations can benefit most;
  • Ways senior leaders can improve their own professional lives.

Sreenivasan is a technology expert and dean of student affairs at the Journalism School, where he teaches in the digital journalism program. He specializes in explaining technology to consumers/readers/viewers/users. For more than eight years, he served as technology reporter for WABC-TV and WNBC-TV in NYC and now occasionally appears on various TV shows to talk tech. For more than six years, he wrote a Web Tips column for He has written articles for The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Rolling Stone, National Journal, Bloomberg, Forbes, and Popular Science. In March 2004, Newsweek magazine named him one of the nation's 20 most influential South Asians; and in 2009, AdAge named him "one of 25 media people to follow on Twitter." You can find him on Twitter and his Twitter Guide for Newbies and Skeptics.

TOM FIELD: What do senior leaders need to know about social media today? Hi, this is Tom Field, Editorial Director with Information Security Media Group. We are discussing this topic today with Professor Sree Sreenivasan, Dean of Student Affairs at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Sree, thanks so much for joining me today.

SREE SREENIVASAN: Pleasure to be here.

FIELD: Just for a bit of context, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and your current work?

SREENIVASAN: Yes, I've been teaching journalism at Columbia Graduate School in Manhattan for 17 years, and the vast majority of them have been spent in the digital media program. In the last couple of years, I've been teaching social media for media professionals, and I do training around the country on how to use technology better. I've also been our technology reporter on the local NBC and ABC stations, and I occasionally freelance or do guest appearances about technology and explaining it to everyday people for several years on TV around the country.

FIELD: Very good. Well, as you know, we reach security executives and banking institutions, government agencies, healthcare organizations, and we hear a lot of senior leaders saying today that social media are coming. Now the reality is ... and that is where I am going to ask you to fill in the blank.

SREENIVASAN: The reality is that social media is here all ready, but the reality is also that it is over hyped at the same time. So I'm saying kind of two things. I believe that social media is the biggest change to happen in the world of the internet since the web itself, because it changes the way people are communicating, telling each other what is happening in the world, how people are finding out what is happening, immense customer service implications. The way in which people are doing business has been affected, as well as personal connections. So we think of social media sometimes as something that the kids do, but I spend a lot of time talking to senior leaders that they need to understand this.

FIELD: Well, that gives me a good entry here; what do you find that senior leaders most misunderstand about social media?

SREENIVASAN: One of the things they misunderstand is that it is for kids to do, and it's kids sharing photos, and that is part of it. But it also has immense implications for a business organization in almost every part of the company from marketing, sales, advertising, customer service, getting new customers, customer acquisitions, all of that has an impact. This doesn't mean at the same time that you only need to worry about this. The good news for senior leaders who haven't dabbled in this field is digital and social media is an overlay over all the traditional stuff that they all ready know so well. Their experiences, their background, their knowledge are absolutely key to success, and you don't have to be somebody who knows all of this to use this well. You just have to have something -- one of the things I tell people is you have something to say on social media. So that's why your background and experience is actually helpful to it. There are also people of different ages. Yes, there are some 22-year-olds doing it -- a lot of 22-year-olds -- but I have given workshops where the average age is 76, and people are interested. So let's set aside the idea that age is a factor. Let's set aside the idea that this is a playtime thing. This is now the number one activity on the internet even beyond porn, which you can imagine how difficult it is to get something to knock porn off that pedestal. It is something that people do, and that means people are talking about you, about your company, about various aspects of your business, and you need to understand that.

FIELD: Well, Sree, let's talk about some specifics. Let's talk about LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, whatever you want to talk about. Where do you see organizations benefiting the most from the use of social media?

SREENIVASAN: Well, I should say that I have a collection of tips that I hope you will be able to put out along with your podcast. They are all available off my website at, and the thing that they need to do is to look at things like every kind of network has its own role, its own place, and its own value, and you have to spend time understanding it. You can't just throw an internet at somebody; these are people who are ready to invest time and energy. It is not money that is important. It is the ability to have the time, resources of energy and understanding of how this works. You have to play in it to understand. I mean, I tell jobseekers for example that it's too late to figure out Linked-In when your company starts laying off people, because then it is too late. You don't know what the language, if you will, of LinkedIn is, what the etiquette is, how it works. Panic is not a good method of trying to get a new job. Same thing about Twitter, I say. When the plane lands in the Hudson, it is too late to figure out Twitter. I'm talking about that famous plane that landed in the Hudson. The first way that people heard about it were the Tweets that went out and the photos -- the very famous photo that went out. So you have to figure all of these out. They all have their own niches, and they all have specific uses.

Look at Facebook. Facebook now has 400 million active users; 200 million log in once a day. Last year those numbers are exactly half, so in one year they have added 200 million people, and this has enormous security implications. Everything from how safe is your network, how will people act, what will happen. I know of a big Fortune 25 company that banned Facebook because of worries about malware and stuff, and they have recently opened it up again and allowed their workers to use it, and I think that is very exciting. But it is possible to have problems in social media, but it is also the advantages are far greater than the negative aspects. And another way for senior leader to understand this is senior leaders understand and love email to some extent. They have made their peace with email. They get their work done on it. They direct their secretaries with it, they direct their friends, they plan their birthday parties, and everything they do is done by email as a constant for work today. You would agree, right, Tom?

FIELD: Absolutely, it wasn't the case 15 years ago, but it is now.

SREENIVASAN: Right, so it is now 100% they figured it out. But I'll tell you that if I wanted to do an anti-email campaign, I would just say to you that 90 percent of the world's email is spam. You will say wait a minute, but I figured out that 10 percent that runs my life, and that makes me more efficient and makes my business thrive right? I believe that in social media, it's not 90 percent that is equivalent to spam; maybe it's 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent. But even if it is 90 percent, the key is that we found the 10 percent is gold to us, and that is what we need to find in social media. And as I said, I believe the percentage is much lower in social media.

FIELD: Now, you touched on a topic that I want to dive into a little deeper, which is security risks, particularly in government, in banking, in healthcare, where there is such sensitive data that could be at risk. Where do you see the biggest risks to organizations when they are involved in social media, where their employees are involved in social media?

SREENIVASAN: That is an excellent question and something that if I were a security tech, I would be up all night thinking about this. This is what would keep me up at night. But I would say that the biggest problem in social media is the word "social," and therefore it is the people that are the problem. It's not; it is somebody giving away information about what they are doing when they shouldn't. It's somebody uploading pictures when they shouldn't, or 'Hey, look I'm working in this office and I found this new thing that we're working at in the office,' and then they are tweeting about it or just telling their friend. So it's that human problem if you will that is a much bigger deal to me then the very legitimate problems of things like malware and other security. Those all exist, but they are not any worse than they are on email. In fact, much less, I think. The tools are constantly improving to fix those problems, but I will go back to the people. Teach your people to use this well. It is like I tell parents of kids in high school: Teach your kid that social media is going to be part of their lives for the next 100 years, even if Facebook goes away or Twitter goes away, micro-blogging and social media are here to stay.

FIELD: Now you made a good point that it is social and it is about people. How do you respond to critics that we hear from certainly in business organizations that say that this is just a waste of time because it is just socializing? What is your response to them?

SREENIVASAN: Well, no. I think, by the way Twitter has the best set of examples on how to do this. They have a section on Twitter called If you go there, they have case studies from multiple organizations, business case studies, which by the way with the slides already there, so you can actually borrow those slides to make a presentation. But just to see the case that they make and how different companies in different sectors are using and making social media a business case.

FIELD: One last question for you Sree. I know you've spoken a lot about how individuals can improve their professional lives by a social media. If you could offer a couple of tips to senior leaders along those lines, what would you suggest to them?

SREENIVASAN: A couple of things. First is changing your media diet. We all love the Wall Street Journal. I'm not saying don't. I'm not saying stop reading the Wall Street Journal, but you must read the Wall Street Journal of social media, and that is a website called, which is the Wall Street Journal of this topic, which means you have to dive in and understand what are people saying, what are they reading, what are they talking about, what are the new tips. They have a lot of good stuff. That is one. And again, on my collection of tips you'll see a lot of them and what is the easiest way to get that to your folks? Is it just, would you be able to give them a link or should I give the link now?

FIELD: Why don't you give it right now, and we'll see if we can share some as well.

SREENIVASAN: The link where I am collecting all my social media tips is HTTP://BIT.LY/SREESOCBIT.LY/SREESOC or you can find it all on To go back to your folks, I would also say the number one thing they have to do is start playing with this. If you're scared of it, you're worried about it; you can have a private account on Twitter so that no one else sees what you are doing. Watch other people and see how they are using it. There is a section on Twitter called where they just collect executives; senior C-level people are tweeting all day long, and they collect and curate the best of those. So there are ways in which you can find in different industries people who are already doing it. Having said all of this, I also want to emphasize I am a skeptic in the sense: Don't over do it; don't believe this is going to save your business. Don't believe this is going to be more important than all traditional stuff you already do. And if you keep those guidelines in mind, I think you'll be fine.

FIELD: The topic has been social media. We've been talking with Sree Sreenivasan with the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. For Information Security Media Group, I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.

About the Author

Tom Field

Tom Field

Senior Vice President, Editorial, ISMG

Field is responsible for all of ISMG's 28 global media properties and its team of journalists. He also helped to develop and lead ISMG's award-winning summit series that has brought together security practitioners and industry influencers from around the world, as well as ISMG's series of exclusive executive roundtables.

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