Sep 2013

The Power and Risks of Social Media

Sharon Constanҫon, CEO of Board development specialists Genius Methods, advises on the perils of delegating online reputation management to inexperienced personnel.

Recently, I hosted a panel debate into the issue of reputational risk and how to manage organisational and individual reputations.

In addition to the more traditional aspects of risk planning, preparing to deal with the unforeseen, and how best to respond to stakeholders and the media, particular focus was given to the implications, benefits and risks presented by social media.

The rise of social media – in particular Twitter – has led to many businesses establishing a social media profile to ensure that it has a presence. A good idea but this is often where it already starts to go wrong. As this medium is so new and better understood by the youth, many companies without the specific in-house skills delegate; but, in doing so, neglect to pay due care and attention.

They should be asking – who is handling it? Is there a policy? What can be said? What is the objective? What are the desired response behaviours? Instead, it becomes a noise – irrelevant, inappropriate; or, a disclosure of corporate secrets.

It is now commonplace for stakeholders, present or prospective, to research a business online to obtain information from which they form opinions. This is the window of opportunity to communicate your message. Websites are often handled well, but social media is not.

A combination of casualness, immediacy and a general lack of understanding of “private and confidential” creates many gaffs that individuals and companies wish they could turn back the clock and eradicate, but that too is not a secret and is tracked! Unfortunately, ‘tech savvy’ or ‘social media savvy’ does not necessarily correlate to ‘content savvy’.

The danger with social media is that the task is often assigned to a younger or more junior person in the communications department. At best, this is a missed opportunity; at worst, it is a reputational risk. That is not to say that this is the only reason for errors, after all, our politicians have had their fair share of “getting it wrong”.

Building a reputation on Twitter requires the writer to be extremely articulate and to have a strong understanding of the subject matter. The limited character-count requires succinct use of words to create powerful messages.

The rise of Twitter in recent years has demonstrated that the medium is a two edged sword. Used creatively even in a B2B market, Twitter is very powerful. Used without guidance, it can be very destructive.

This story, which I am sure is not unique, comes from a delegate who had been present as a mediator for a major negotiation between two high profile organisations. Despite being sworn to secrecy, one of the interns attending with the mediation firm drafted a Tweet to tell friends about the “deal” that was being negotiated.

One can imagine the consequences for both parties and the mediators had that Tweet made it into the world. This occurred notwithstanding intern training and the fact that the individual had signed the company’s NDA and confidentiality policy (which HR had taken pains to explain to the new recruits).

When discussed with the intern they found it very difficult to understand the extreme excitement around the matter and could not “get” what they had done wrong.

Informal and easy access to Twitter by individuals increases the risk of creating the wrong message or sharing of the wrong information. Staff carry mobile phones with them 24/7, switching constantly from work, to private, to social activities on the same unit. It is unsurprising, therefore, that these different activities “merge” on the little device in their hands.

It is essential that the individuals or teams responsible for managing a company’s online reputation are fully versed in the business’ tone of voice, key messages, the policies of sharing information and the value of confidentiality.

As we have seen too many times, one can disregard the power of social media, but to your detriment. When it comes to social media, exercise caution and care, rather than becoming a case study in a ‘when social media goes wrong’ workshop.

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