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Finding a path through the social media jungle

Nikos Bozionelos

Nikos Bozionelos, Audencia Nantes School of Management, France on the perils and pitfalls of social media

Social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook, its Chinese equivalent WeChat, and mass dissemination platforms like Twitter offer managers and leaders a host of opportunities to raise their profile and communicate. Opportunities, however, are by default accompanied by risks. 

Few would argue with the advantages of social media. They allow the user to become known to potentially everyone within a professional or social sphere through fast and cost-effective means. This means social media can provide an edge in spreading information as a user can be the first to reach an audience about a critical issue or an urgent matter. Businesses and employers can also use them to have a much wider outreach so maximising the possibility of making the right choice in a given area. In addition, managers can use them as a means of remaining in constant touch with employees or other ‘publics’.

At the same time, such speed and efficiency can create significant threats. A good example of this comes as a natural consequence of greater outreach. In the same way that desirable information rapidly reaches a huge number of individuals so does undesirable information. Something that negatively reflects on image or goes against stated interests reaches not only direct contacts, but also the contacts of these contacts. There are many cases where a ‘private’ or apparently insignificant event blew up disproportionally to have a large negative effect on an individual simply because social media enabled it to reach many people who it should not have reached. 

Another threat comes from the fact that social media’s platform – the internet – never forgets. A badly judged tweet, which once posted leaves its trace even after deletion, may continue to cause misfortune long into the future. This must be seen along with the fact that negative impressions weigh three times more than positive ones in people’s minds. In order to gain the benefits but avoid the dangers of social media and related technologies the manager or leader would do well to follow certain guidelines.

One key rule is to avoid the temptation of replying straight away or commenting in haste where a sensitive and potentially controversial message is concerned. No matter how much pressure or impulse we might feel to respond or make a statement instantly we must take a distance, do something else in the meantime then revisit the message after a given length of time (minutes or hours depending on the context). The very meaning of the message might seem different when reread after a short interval. Only then should we seek to respond or comment.

Just as critical is the time taken to revisit a text destined for social networks before putting it online. Dangers increase if we send a message on an important issue immediately after writing it. The best course is to save it and revisit it a little later (again, minutes or hours depending on the circumstances) before we send it. This advice is doubly important in the case of messages or events that arouse strong emotions for us (e.g., anger, joy, frustration) because emotionally-bound decision-making is usually of low quality. We must never communicate immediately upon being informed of something that provokes a strong emotional reaction in us. The emotions in question need to be soothed before any social network activity. It is most likely that with a cooler head judgement will be better. 

Beware also of sending mass messages, such as tweets, when at social occasions. The mix of social networks with friends and worst of all, alcohol must be avoided. It is highly likely that under the influence of the relaxed mood on such occasions we are prone to misjudge the importance and potential consequences or what we put online.

And above all, avoid one of the temptations of our hyper-connected age: do not over-communicate. Limiting messages or posts to topics and issues that are of real importance is the best policy. This cultivates an image of “kudos” that makes the job of the leader easier as it creates more respect among both subordinates and superiors.

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