Imagine that your company, the political party you represent, the school or institution you manage or even yourself are under attack. Not from a rival board, or an established brand, or someone you know and are able to challenge. The attack comes from an obscure website, or a little-known blog, or the bulletin board run by some sophomore in a local high school. All of a sudden the criticism aimed at you goes viral, gets picked up by old media, and CNN – not to be outmanoeuvred by the newcomers – flashes it on prime time.

Nightmare? No, an experience shared by many brands and powerful political houses. Studies printed by scientific publications, from Nature to PlosOne, acknowledge that the web is poor at distinguishing between authoritative sources and dubious links. It is difficult to put forward or defend your own point of view when you are caught like Gulliver, strung up by the Lilliputians.

It is crucial to have your own social media policy and design, working out a clear-cut, preventive strategy. Many companies, no matter how big, often delegate these tasks to their tech department, social media lab or innovation guys. Deadly wrong. To be strong online, with a clear identity and an original message, you need vision, not a bunch of media-wise kids showing up at work in shorts and flip-flops. Is the CEO aware of the ambiguities, power and cunning ways of the web? Has the board agreed on a common perspective, how to link to your clients, how to shape your own community, how friendly you want to appear on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest?

The focus should not only be on technology – while always riding the next wave. The focus should not only be on the latest social media – while always experimenting with the newest gimmicks. The focus should be, 100%, on your message, your people, your own leadership, strategy and brand. Should they be weak, do not expect the best social media team to have any effect on your performance, not even a cosmetic one. But, even if your company is sound and innovative, you will ignore the social media at your risk. If you are slow online, a bold newcomer will start gnawing at your roots, no matter how old, noble and strong they are.

The most seasoned executive may well feel alarmed at the power of the web to make the strong weak and the weak strong. Yet it is better to share Pope Francis’ optimism when he says: “The web is a gift of God.” While there will be days when, confronted with the latest data analytics on the social conversation about your products or political statements, you may be tempted to say, “Actually, the web is the Devil’s gift”, it is not time to despair.

The web tends to reflect clear messages and further distort fuzzy ones. A good digital skipper navigates the web, benefiting from the contacts, connections and positive energy, while avoiding the stormy waters of negative campaigns.

Your best compass and navigation charts will be provided by Big Data. Do not believe the hype. Big Data will not jump-start your next quarterly earnings report, cure the common cold or allow you to understand your job like you have never done before. Big Data will “just” show the complexity of what you are doing. Connections you had not seen before, links to markets and customers you did not previously count on, improvements you were too slow to recognize, will be highlighted by new data. Big Data are junk without your original interpretation. Reading the same data can lead different analysts to draw opposite conclusions; the storytelling weaved from metadata is the revealing moment of truth. Data grant us a complexity that our ancestors did not enjoy: it is our task to digest these humongous vaults of information to guide our business model, or political manifesto, or personal profile.

Borrowing a line from the great American cartoonist Walt Kelly, we may indeed say: “We have met the web and it is us.”

See also: Eight key media questions for leaders

WEF GAC Future Media Infographic

Author: Gianni Riotta is Professor of New Media Studies at Princeton University.

Image: An illustration picture shows a man starting his Twitter App on a mobile device in Hanau near Frankfurt, October 21, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach