It was a simple enough idea. The head of community management at a major broadcasting corporation decided to launch an internal newsletter focused on the organisation’s social media initiatives. Before he could, though, came the rather brusque message from his colleagues in the branding team: “You don’t own social media!”

Many digital executives will recognise the story, demonstrating as it does the peculiar mix of politicking and bureaucracy that can bedevil efforts to integrate social media oversight into large corporate organisations. While a head of social media is rapidly becoming a must-have accessory for a range of different companies, the responsibilities in question can present a thorny challenge for corporate cultures that are often innately conservative – and prone to infighting.

To date, most of the growth in these roles has occurred in the US, where Altimeter Group analyst Jeremiah Owyang has documented the career path of the corporate social strategist, pointing out that corporations are significantly upping investment in social media hiring.

One of the market’s most high-profile figures is Bonin Bough, who departed Weber Shandwick in 2008 to become global director of digital and social media at Pepsico. Bough admits that “everybody wants to argue” about who owns social media within an organisation, given its impact on a range of functions: PR, marketing, customer service, human resources and legal. But he also believes that this concern about ownership is needlessly obscuring the real issues.

“It’s more important to worry about how it is being executed,” says Bough, using the recent Gatorade Mission Control campaign as an example. “We looked at a cross-functional approach which has folks from customer relations, brand, insight, media…it’s less about ownership and more about really appreciating what it can do for a business and understanding what are the roles that need to collaborate to make this happen.”

The ownership debate

The idea of a cross-functional group has obvious attractions. It does not require a company to drastically re-engineer its structure and ensures that every department that matters has a say. At O2, for example, a similarly-styled ‘real time team’ is tasked with overseeing the company’s social media presence, responding to conversations across customer care, product or communications topics.

“Taking a joined-up approach provides the opportunity to both meet the consumer’s expectations better and provide a consistent and personalised experience,” explains O2 head of social media Alex Pearmain, who joined the company in September 2010 from Fishburn Hedges. “Social media disrupts any industry or organisation which is consumer facing, and businesses have to be flexible in responding accordingly.”

A case in point is Eurostar’s experience when its trains were stranded by cold weather in the Channel Tunnel two years ago. Beleaguered passengers accessed Twitter in the hope of finding real-time information, but Eurostar’s only active presence on the platform was a marketing-run account which – aside from providing details of promotional deals – could not respond to queries about the crisis.

“Most companies have slowly realised that it doesn’t fit neatly into one their existing functions, “ says Allan Blair, head of social media at advertising agency DDB. “Whilst it may be good for corporate reputation, their marketing teams often have better content, however, they need support from the customer service team in managing a series of complaints on their Facebook page.”

Meltwater’s Future of Content research report found that half of the organisations it surveyed favour cross-departmental responsibility for social media. Yet, for Meltwater Buzz area director Mike Anderson, it does not necessarily follow that every organisation is committed to a best-practice approach.

“Unfortunately, many businesses are approaching social media in a pre-web 2.0 mindset – ‘let’s build a social media team, put them in the office at the end of the corridor, and they can manage all this Twitter, Facebook stuff.”

While social media directors are certainly becoming more commonplace, evidence of cohesive, company-wide social media strategies is less routine. That is likely to change as practice and processes become more clearly defined; smart companies may even see an opportunity to re-engineer their structures in a way that better recognises how people now wish to engage.

One thing, though, seems clear. The battle to integrate social media into corporate structures will be determined by internal culture and politics, rather than such issues as media tactics or content strategy.

“In actual fact it seems to have moved from a ‘turf war’ to a challenge of how you enable these disparate departments to work together, yet give them the freedom to participate independently in their own areas of expertise,” says Blair.

“A digital department is somewhat preposterous”

Seen in this light, social media can seem like a potent cocktail for many corporations, fusing the sweeping changes in customer behaviour with a similarly disruptive effect on corporate structures. And while actively seeking the input of various departments makes theoretical sense, there is always the risk that ideas can die by committee.

Which is probably why McDonald’s director of social media Rick Wion believes that the defining challenge for any social media lead is to effectively determine priorities. “The challenge is to identify where social media (and thus the practitioner) can make the most impact and then integrate into that part of the business,” says Wion, who joined McDonald’s from GolinHarris one year ago.

Not every company, adds Wion, necessarily needs one person to lead this effort, even if they can all benefit from the “smart adoption of social technologies.” “Corporate cultures that are inherently social and technologically adept would likely have less need for a single person or team to drive the adoption of social tools,” he explains.

Wion’s point may also refer to the concept – often heard on the numbing treadmill of social media conferences – that every department must become social media savvy. Jonathan Brayshaw, the new head of digital communications and social business at mobile brand Psion, appears to think this argument is a little too utopian for today’s realities.

“A major aspect of my role is to help as many people as is possible get really comfortable with social media from the CEO down, but you can’t achieve such levels of universal familiarity without having someone whose job it is to be tracking the latest trends, tools and techniques,” says Brayshaw, who started his new role at Psion at the start of this year. “It would be too distracting to expect every comms person and every employee to keep abreast of everything that’s going on in the digital domain.”

Even so, many social media heads are acutely aware that their roles may turn out to be transitional in nature. In an interview with the Holmes Report last year, IBM VP of digital strategy and development Ben Edwards noted that a “a digital department is somewhat preposterous” and predicted that the function would cease to exist once the relevant knowledge had been successfully disseminated across an organization.

Chameleons required

Once a company has accepted that it does need someone to lead its social media efforts, it faces perhaps the biggest challenge of all: finding the right person to fill that role. There is precious little guidance available, which is unsurprising when you consider that these are newly-created positions, in which most recruits are making up the rules as they go along.

By canvassing the panel of social media heads assembled for this article, however, a template emerges of the types of skills that are required. Blair points out that corporate social media specialists usually fit one of two types: a senior strategy lead, or a more junior tactician. His  point is reinforced by Owyang’s Altimeter Group research, which notes that there are two career paths for corporate social strategists: “Be proactive or become the social media helpdesk.”

One quality, above all, bubbles to the surface. Change management can sometimes seem like a particularly illusory piece of corporate-speak; for internal social media specialists who are trying to manage a fairly pivotal revamp of an organisation’s engagement model, it is all too real.

“Change management is one of the most underrated aspects of being successful in a social media role at a large organization,” says Wion. “Social media suffers from its own hype in this area.”

In language that will appeal to sceptics, Wion explains further. “Yes social media is revolutionary, but that doesn’t mean that I can come to work in a Che Guevara t-shirt and expect anyone to listen to me. You need to strike a balance of fitting in with a culture but also being able to push from inside to transform.”

Pepsico’s Bough agrees, and notes that these roles require someone “who can build coalition and collaboration across the organisation.” “Somebody who can be taken seriously from an educational standpoint,” he continues. “And somebody who can push stuff through and execute.”

To this list, add Pearmain’s three key characteristics: passion for social media, broad knowledge of the online marketing mix, and adaptability. “Without passion, the brand’s engagements will prove lacklustre,” explains Pearmain. “Broad knowledge of the online marketing mix because the role challenges the boundaries of traditional siloes and requires chameleon-like skills. Adaptability because of being at ease in front of a niche blogger one second, and the boardroom the next – not to mention being credible to both.”

Wion, perhaps, has the last word: “You also need a great BS filter, to filter out the BS social media hype that is thrown your way, and to call out internal BS from detractors who do not want to implement any social media because they do not understand…or because of the hype.”

If the array of required qualities doesn’t sound dizzying enough, Owyang’s research points to further complexity, including such challenges as a lack of resources, difficulties measuring ROI, and the overwhelming lack of clearly defined job objectives.

Most social media heads, though, appear fairly sanguine about these issues. “If it was easy they wouldn’t call it work,” quips Bough. “The biggest thing is how exciting it is to create the template. I actually think it’s a unique opportunity to drive business value.”