Matt HealeyThursday,24 January 2013

The Snap

I think that we can all agree that social media is now a major force in both personal and business communications. Companies are appointing heads of social media and digital strategy. There clearly is a focus on building and maintaining a strong brand in the social media space. However, this is a much more difficult proposition than it was before, as the number of people who can comment on your company/product/culture has increased dramatically.

The Download

In the past you had to worry about critics, consumer advocates, media, and analysts. These were the main people who would be commenting and who held sway with the general public. This lead to the policy of “never pick a fight with some one who buys ink by the barrel”. John McCain violated a variant of this policy in the 2008 election when he snubbed David Letterman by canceling at the last min to return to Washington to help save the economy. The problem was he did not return to Washington, he went on Katie Couric’s show instead. Letterman then proceeded to go after McCain for the rest of the campaign. Obama could not have bought better press. Sculpting these opinions was difficult, but doable as the number of people you had to influence was minimal.

That has now changed and you have to worry about your customers and your employees. This has increased the number of possible touch points dramatically and has made the job of controlling a brand almost impossible. This has scared corporate PR managers and management. In reaction, they have implemented policies to limit free discussion of workplace events by employees on social media sites. This approach is an attempt to hold back the ocean, and we saw how well that worked in New Orleans in 2005. First of all, a lot of the policies are being struck down by courts and other government agencies like the NLRB. It turns out that first amendment free speech right is pretty well-defended by the courts. Second, the more you clamp down, the more disgruntled some of your employees become, and the more they either contribution online, or quit. Neither are good outcomes as talent development and retention are difficult in today’s world.

That does not mean that corporations should not monitor and police what their employees are saying online. It just requires more effort than simply developing a blanket policy to restrict everything. The policy can clearly state the discussions about company IP, or company confidential information is strictly forbidden. Further harassing another employee can and should be banned. But broader chatter about the company is going to happen and it should be allowed and monitored. But this monitoring needs to be intelligent and able to differentiate between normal background complaints — the type that every employee has faced and have been complaining about since corporations have been in existence — and truly detrimental comments. The detrimental comments then need to be addressed in combination with other problems that the offending employee has been causing, because the problems are not likely to be limited to online behavior. By following this more deliberate and time consuming approach, a company will be in a better position if an employee needs to be terminated for not being a team player, this reducing the risk of litigation.

Hat Tips

Hurricane Katrina, NYT on corporate policies on social media, Image Credit: Flickr

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