Speak Up

Believe the hype: Social media has a lot to offer waste industry professionals.

We hear a lot about “social media.” But what is it? Social media refers to online interactions among people who share information and opinions using Web-based tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These and other popular social networks clearly are changing the ways that many people get information and interact with friends, family and colleagues. But is it a fad?

Holdouts cite a variety of reservations. They dismiss social media as a time-waster. They insist that only young people take part in it. They are overwhelmed by the technology involved.

Nevertheless, the Pew Research Center reports that the number of adult Americans participating in online social networks has more than quadrupled since 2005, to 35 percent of adult Internet users. In fact, older Americans are now the fastest growing group of social network users, in part due to saturation among younger users. Moreover, 75 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 participate in social media, and they don't seem likely to alter this behavior as they get older.

Even if you consciously have resisted social media, you likely read a blog or two, use Wikipedia and get invitations to join peoples' networks on LinkedIn. Star Trek fans will appreciate comparisons to assimilation by the Borg.

In truth, social media can be enormously valuable, whether to keep up with the latest news, connect with old friends or network with peers. And getting involved is not as hard as you may think. Start slowly.

Blogs (short for “web logs”) are online journals. They cover a wide range of topics and include news, opinion and personal experiences. Your local newspaper or favorite magazine may have a blog. When you read a blog post that you find interesting, add a comment to the post or forward it to a friend or family member. With a few clicks, you've just started using social media.

Next, you may want to join a social networking site. LinkedIn is a career-focused site where you can build an online resume and strengthen your network of professional contacts. You may be surprised by how many co-workers, vendors and clients you find there. Facebook and MySpace are more social sites where you can connect with friends, family and old classmates. Build a cursory bio and upload a photo. Think carefully about what personal information you want to share. Join groups. Where do you live? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? Do you belong to a place of worship or community organizations?

There are a number of social media opportunities related to solid waste management. Members of the Environmental Industry Associations (EIA) recently started groups on both LinkedIn and Facebook and have posted videos to YouTube.

Another good site for waste professionals is Greenopolis.com, developed by Waste Management. It brings individuals, communities, environmental organizations, schools and businesses together to learn about positive, environmental changes they can make. You can play games, track your carbon footprint and much more. Greenopolis also has a significant presence on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

Before posting anything about your professional life, ask your company leadership if they have a social media policy. Many companies are creating such policies, specifying what is fair game for online discussion by their employees. Keep posts interesting and germane to the topic at hand. Never pretend to be someone (or something) you're not — such pretense almost always backfires. Embrace the golden rule, and behave as if you're posting something in a public forum (because you are). Turn the other cheek when confronted with bad behavior. It does little good to get embroiled in “flame wars” (Web term for online arguments that quickly spiral into incivility). Comment in a timely manner but take the time to spell check and edit before you hit the send button.

Eventually, you may want to incorporate social media with your professional life. Again, make sure that anything you do conforms to your company's policies. Set simple, obtainable goals, stay focused and manage time, and you can use social media to successfully facilitate customer service, market your company's services and products, interact with people and officials who live in the communities that you serve, and comment about news stories that relate to your company and our industry.

EIA is developing a training program focusing on how you and your company can take advantage of social media. Members will also be able to find best practices at www.environmentalistseveryday.org/members/toolkit. For help using EIA resources, contact me at [email protected].

Thomas Metzger is director of communications and public affairs for the National Solid Wastes Management Association. Reach him at (202) 364-3751.