Louise Vansleve: Changing organisation perceptions of ‘social’.

By Roger Christie, Managing Director

Propel’s Expert Series launches with Louise Vansleve — the recently appointed social lead at Transport for New South Wales — sharing where she has had success changing organisation perceptions of ‘social’. Having run her own business and worked across banking, parenting and cancer services, Louise understands the pressures of complex operating environments and the need to balance commercial and community outcomes.

Roger Christie (RC): Louise — you’ve just left Cancer Council NSW to join Transport for NSW as its new Social Media Manager. Firstly, what does that title mean to you and what do you think the organisation expects from you in that role?

Louise Vansleve (LV): Social media at Transport for NSW is very different to what I experienced with Cancer Council NSW. But I think that’s the reality for a lot of organisations in this space — while we feel like social has been around for a long time now, the reality is that social team structures are relatively new compared to teams like marketing. Social teams have often evolved quite organically depending on where they started within an organisation. At Transport, I work closely with the Public Affairs team, but at Cancer Council my remit was far more marketing focused.

So, in terms of the title itself, I’m not too fussed if I’m Social Media Manager or Social Lead or Head of Social…

RC: It’s interesting, though, that in another organisation, ‘Social Media Manager’ may well be the title given to someone managing a specific channel or community? Even titles in this space are a bit ambiguous.

LV: Absolutely. And I think we are seeing social roles really expand as social media matures. In 2012 we saw this with the introduction of paid activity on social which enabled social specialists to start playing more heavily in a traditional marketing space. Now we are seeing social media roles encompass the new technology around chatbots and customer service automation.

Social really is where multiple disciplines are converging. Social touches content production — both written and multimedia — PR, Public Affairs, Customer Service and community engagement. There are not many areas in an organisation that have a remit quite that broad and it is my belief that social teams need to have an understanding or ideally skills across all of these disciplines.

What’s particularly interesting about the social space is how in some organisations, certain parts of the business that have no social specialists at all still have authority over the elements and indeed sometimes the entire channels that impact social teams and this can hold back the potential of an organisation to really engage their communities. For example, it’s quite typical for marketing teams to hold budgets for paid social activity or produce content without necessarily understanding the nuances of social media channels or communities.

RC: It’s certainly a unique challenge. How have you got around those legacy barriers or ‘ownership’ challenges in the past?

LV: Building credibility is so important. In my case, having had a background in marketing and content definitely helps as you can communicate and deliver value to different areas to support their activity. As social cuts across so many different parts of an organisation, it is so important that your team have a diverse set of experiences and skills across content, channel management, media and in particular stakeholder management.

What’s interesting about credibility is how other parts of the organisation engage you. I think for most social teams, if you asked other functional areas what they did they would probably say ‘a support service’. Now, we know there’s much more to social than ‘Can you put this up for me?’, but sadly many organisations still have a very limited view of the role social can play for them. I think if Heads of Social were perceived as having the same authority as Heads of Marketing, for example, and really driving the direction and strategy of an organisation in conjunction with marketing, brand and other relevant teams, we would see social in many organisations mature quite significantly. Social leads often have to prove their credibility at every turn. In some cases, they report into the Head of Marketing, which is weird because social media is far more than a marketing function.

RC: Why is that the case? Why in there an inherent scepticism around the role social can play within most organisations?

LV: There’s a range of factors. But I think it starts with the way an organisation perceives its own needs and an individual’s value in meeting those needs. I’ll give you an example from an interview I once had. I was being interviewed by people who didn’t understand the space they were hiring for, nor what they should be looking for in a candidate. I kid you not — one of their questions was: ‘Tell me about the best social media post you’ve ever done.’ This showed the complete lack of understanding that the success of a company’s social media channels is inherent in building a solid social media and content strategy that supports the organisational objectives.

Organisations also need to rewrite their job ads. My pet peeve is seeing ‘Must live and breathe social’ in a job ad for a Social Media Manager role. You wouldn’t advertise for an accountant that “must live and breathe spreadsheets’! It’s critical that organisations reconsider their job ads and look for people who have a broad range of experiences and levels of expertise.

To all businesses I would give the same advice around hiring that I give to people coming to me with a post for social media — what’s your objective with your social channels? Does your organisation need social to be integrated closely with marketing and content teams? Or does your social team need to be the content team? Is your social media primarily a customer service channel? Are your social channels purely a vehicle to amplify your content or is the objective to drive traffic to your website?

RC: Obviously it’s hard to change an organisation’s perceptions though if they keep hiring the wrong people. That just creates a cycle of disenchantment. But what can practitioners do if they find themselves in this position, undervalued or limited in what they contribute towards?

LV: You need to listen. Understand what other people’s objectives are before you start pushing your own agenda and ideas. Ask: ‘How can I help?’ rather than making it about you. When you take that approach, you become a valuable asset to people.

But it takes time. Sometimes people come in all guns blazing… Oh no. That won’t work. It continues to surprise me just how much change management and education is required in this role — I’d say 70% of the time it’s all about change and stakeholder management. You need to understand a division’s needs and say: ‘Here’s how we can support your objectives and get the best outcome for you in our social channels.’ In social, you’ve actually got to bring all these different stakeholders on a journey. You’re much more likely to have people buy into your ideas with that approach.

RC: What are the practical steps to that, though? You and I agree there is a broader role for social than managing channels or posting content, but what tactics can people use to build credibility, get others on side, and work towards shared goals?

LV: First and foremost, you must understand what the organisation’s needs are. What is the executive team wanting to achieve or working towards? Tap into that. Does the Board want to do more in digital? Use that knowledge. Is there an organisational message or agenda you need to align with? Connect your approach to that motivation and figure out how to make it work for your channels.

In my case, if suggesting a different tack or new idea, I will look for data. And if I can’t get data, I will have a case study. Utilise external examples that show the potential value of an idea for your organisation.

Then you need to find the people internally that can make things happen. The people that will back you.

Finally, you need to get into conversations. Is there a quarterly planning meeting for all teams? Is social part of that conversation — no? Ask if you can be involved. If I hear someone talking about a meeting that sounds relevant, I’ll turn up. If it’s not valuable, I won’t go again. But you’ve got to work out where you can get those business insights from, and sometimes that means standing up to other department heads and holding your own. It’s not always easy, but if you’re an afterthought you have to make yourself visible.

RC: How do you plan to change internal perceptions of social at Transport, and public perceptions of Transport through social in your new role?

LV: Internally, we’ve already done a great job selling social. Everyone wants a piece of it, so our challenge now is more about shaping best practice and demonstrating to the rest of the organisation that a collaborative approach will deliver results. A great example of that recently was the launch of a new feature of the new Opal Travel App, where we took what was initially a very product-centric marketing concept and focused instead on the utility and customer value found in the app. And the results spoke for themselves.

Examples like this help to build our credibility as specialists who understand community needs and attitudes, not just as people who post content for Transport. But you need that evidence. You’re not going to change existing internal perceptions overnight, so put processes in place to capture the data you need to justify early engagement, or additional headcount, or better tools. One of the quickest ways to get attention on the work you’re doing is to look at areas where your organisation is spending money at present, and work out how social could play a role reducing costs or adding value.

Likewise, external perceptions aren’t going to change overnight. Transport social media, like many areas of Government and private sector can be seen as a place to complain and have a rant. Transport is the backbone of NSW — the conduit that helps people get to the places they want to go, and live the lives they want. It also has the ability to shape a city and deliver outcomes far broader than just journeys from A to B. There are some wonderful stories within transport from the recent sad, lost bunny [note: whose good news story even travelled to Ireland], to the historical artefacts being uncovered with some of the work going on in Sydney at the moment. I think we’re sometimes guilty of getting caught up in what the organisation “has” to say and do day to day rather than the bigger picture.

Social at its core is storytelling. As social storytellers, we need to leverage our insights around what the community wants to hear from us and tell the stories that will help build that stronger relationship with customers.

RC: We look forward to seeing how the transport story unfolds. Thanks for your time, Louise.

This was the first interview in Propel’s Expert Series featuring Louise Vansleve — Social Media Manager at Transport for NSW. Louise can be contacted via LinkedIn if you would like to follow up any topics raised in her interview. The Expert Series will continue soon, and aims to showcase the breadth of business opportunities and value available to organisations by focusing on social capabilities, not social media channels. If you have an interviewee recommendation, please contact our Managing Director, Roger.