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Preventing social media disastersSocial media is the magic marketing tool that every business needs, right? It can build your profile, expand your networks and make you irresistible to new customers. However, it also presents huge threats to businesses. So what can you do to prevent a social media disaster?

Social media presents huge threats to businesses large and small, especially those that don’t inform and educate staff about their online responsibilities. As increasing numbers of staff access computers at work or go online and create social media content at home, we see a blurring of the lines between our professional and personal communications, and lives. I’m seeing more and more businesses facing a new set of reputational challenges specific to the social media area, including:

  • How can you effectively deal with online rumours?
  • Can you counter online criticism or negate blog comments made by staff?
  • Should you ever engage with online activists and snipers?
  • Can you remove offensive video materials uploaded to online sites?

Businesses are affected differently

Google ‘online PR disasters’ and you’ll see plenty of businesses struggle to protect their name and image against digital reputation damage. Just ask the Domino’s franchisee whose staff filmed each other farting–yes farting–on customer servings while at work. They uploaded the footage to YouTube and the video was shared all over the world in online and then traditional media. What do you think social media did for the brand, that specific Domino’s restaurant and the value of the franchise owner’s investment?

Even bosses stuff up; one New Zealand storeowner harshly criticised several customers (via rude emails) who had expressed mild dissatisfaction with the service they’d received. Her customers used the web to share and spread her bitchy communications. The tale was reported by mainstream newspapers with the subsequent media coverage damaging the store’s business standing.

Old media feed off new media

More than 90 percent of journalists surveyed by US marketers the Arketi Group, admitted they use the net for story inspiration, while 84 percent read blogs as a research source and 67 percent admit to watching webinars or listening to podcasts. So, what appears about you or your workers in social media spaces can have a downside for your business, as well as an upside. Many companies think that such ridiculous scenarios–like bizarre footage being uploaded to YouTube–will never happen to them and fail to do any advance planning. So when the video skit hits the online fan, these businesses are ill-equipped to combat or correct the poor impressions that are created.

First steps in protecting your business

The first stage is to accept the reality that your staff are likely to be, or become, participants and content publishers in today’s interactive e-culture. The new digital media space accounts for over a third of consumers’ media consumption habits. Employees are often web users who visit e-opinion and consumer review websites. They unguardedly comment on blogs, media sites and forums. They upload rude photos and share work rumours with people they chat with online.

Businesses considering social media engagement need to start monitoring the online environment to discover when they’re talked about. While it may seem daunting–especially to SMEs who think they need big bucks for this–there are a few free and easy-to-adopt monitoring tools that make tracking online commentary pretty straightforward. You can quickly set up Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts) to get instant notifications whenever your company is mentioned. To find out if bloggers are talking about you or your business, visit www.technorati.com and use the free search bar to track any relevant blogger coverage. Oh, and use RSS feeds to ensure any updates are sent to you automatically.

Unfortunately, when injurious material is uploaded to the digital domain it can stay there forever. Via search engines, negative news about your business can be found over and over, creating ongoing problems for the image of you or your business. Prevention is better than cure.

Web 2.0 policy and guidelines

The best preventative measure is to create a set of employee guidelines, informing them of what they can or cannot, should or should not, do when they visit social media environments. Such social media policies should be specifically designed to reflect the kind of organisation you have, but some of the key areas they should address include:

1. Identity
Social media is all about transparency, so staff or associates should:

  • Disclose their true identity or allegiances, avoiding pseudonyms
  • Disclose their organisation and provide appropriate contact details
  • Not be covertly represented by a third party or agency.

2. Personal v professional publishing
When online, staff may find themselves involved in social media conversations that could touch on work-related issues. Accordingly they must:

  • Be sensitive to separating their personal opinions from professional ones
  • Watch their language and expression when referring to company matters
  • Not reveal confidential information.

3. Blog relations
Blogs and bloggers should be afforded the same professional courtesy as traditional media sources, meaning:

  • Don’t spam, target carefully, always observe ‘house rules’ and ask bloggers to be transparent when dealing with you.

4. Commercial transactions
Companies and their representatives need to be careful about the relationship they develop with online publishers, being very clear that:

  • Ideally, they will not seek to buy or otherwise recompense favourable commentary (cash for comment)
  • Encourage bloggers to be open and transparent in how they engage with/review organisational wares

5. Laws and regulations
Businesses can be held legally responsible for materials authored, created, produced, or posted online. If staff-created content is defamatory, inappropriate or libellous they could be disciplined by your employer and even sued by other parties affected.

  • Comply with all relevant laws and regulations (especially those relating to identity and representation)
  • Respect competitors and detractors; don’t get hostile or snide
  • Adhere to corporate confidentiality, legal and privacy guidelines.

6. Confidential and protected information
Companies should always respect brand, copyright, fair use, financial disclosure, trademark and trade secrets regulations making it critical that staff understand that they must:

  • Not share confidential, proprietary or sensitive information
  • Not use copyrighted materials – audio tracks (speeches), footage (video), graphics (graphs, charts, logos), images, photographs or music – without seeking appropriate permissions from the originator or copyright owner.
  • Respect the privacy, position and prerogatives of fellow employees and associates.

Get advice

While social media may be in its infancy, it is gaining acceptance as a credible form of media. It’s undeniable that your staff members can be credible brand touchpoints for your business. As more of them participate in social media spaces, they’re potentially going to be brand assets or brand liabilities. It’s not rocket science to figure out which you’d rather they were, is it?

If your business is thinking of social media right now, I’d suggest setting up monitoring systems to get a feel for how it all works. Then, get an expert to help you set up a safe, social media sandpit where you can try out the technical aspects of social media in house, before going ‘live’ online. And get your employee engagement guidelines written soon. For social media, honestly, it’s the best policy.

–Gerry McCusker is the author of Public Relations Disasters and founder of Engage ORM (www.engageorm.com), a PR company offering training for businesses looking to do more with online audiences.

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Gerry McCusker

Gerry McCusker

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