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Social media: a company's first line of communication and defence

Paul Thomas

Paul Thomas, social media and digital communications strategist, Grant Thornton LLP, on how a company should effectively use social media

In March, a Manchester-based restaurant made the mistake of responding to a negative review from a bride-to-be with a scathing attack on Facebook. In a series of posts it described the hen party as ‘chav cheap trash’ and ‘ugly’.
 
The ‘chavgate storm’ immediately erupted. Scores of people took to TripAdvisor to post poor reviews of the restaurant. The company owner deleted the restaurant’s social media accounts after they were bombarded with angry feedback. According to a statement, the incident is now being investigated and dealt with internally.

On brand every time

There are lessons businesses can learn from this incident (and the many controversies that have preceded this one). For instance, social media etiquette shouldn’t be too dissimilar to face to face communications as, notwithstanding the means of communications, you are fundamentally dealing with people. The crucial difference is the potential scale of response; which is why you must demonstrate integrity, be thoughtful and swift, not knee-jerk.

Social media invites greater scrutiny and demands genuine transparency. This can be intimidating for businesses but, if managed with care, it’s an opportunity to engage with receptive customers and conventionally hard to reach influencers. Too often social media engagement is handled by junior members of staff without the support of senior managers. Senior leaders are aware the company has a social media presence but see it as a tick box exercise; a task they can delegate in its entirety to the marketing division. While this serves a basic function for many businesses, there are inherent dangers and missed opportunities in taking this approach.

Social leaders

Businesses should bring in senior business leaders who already use social media to add strategic direction. This can help organisations consider how they can use social media to promote their brand, address misconceptions and further their reputation. It can become an integral piece of their armoury and overall business strategy. It’s why start-ups thrive online and large corporates struggle.

To help, businesses should activate middle management. By giving them permission to continue the conversation online, a company can quickly deliver critical mass; which, if accompanied by a robust policy of risk mitigation, can be valuable. This provides the depth of expertise and experience that more junior colleagues may need and helps create broader employee advocacy. 

The key to unlocking middle management is trust. Trust your employees to use their own accounts to broadcast their thoughts and observations and encourage them to promote their place of work in a responsible manner. Apply the same logic in the way you demonstrate and reward this trust in the real world. For instance if you have faith in your employees to successfully attend client lunches unsupervised, extend this to social media.

 

Clear guidelines

But bear in mind that this should be managed carefully by providing crystal clear guidelines. Refer to these guidelines regularly; make them easily accessible and digestible. The guidelines should be as simple as the channels themselves. Too often these rules are prohibitively restrictive, obfuscated by reams and reams of detail and only trawled through once a mistake has been made.

When it comes to the corporate handle on Twitter or profile on LinkedIn, essentially the crown jewels of the estate, know who your key holders are. In 2013, HMV’s management called their staff into a meeting room and announced mass redundancies. However, staff members still had access to the company social media accounts. @hmvtweets sprung to life with a kick-off message "We're tweeting live from HR where we're all being fired!" Using the hashtag #HMVXFactorFiring, the tweets quickly went viral and the topic trended worldwide.
 
Many commentators ridiculed HMV for not changing the passwords before firing staff. It’s questionable why these employees had the passwords in the first place. Only those who can be trusted should have access. This is especially important given that people now examine a company’s social footprint at the same time – or instead of – accessing the corporate website.

A social CEO?

However, just as unaccountable members of staff may not be the most suitable key holders, the CEO may not be the right person to tweet on the company’s behalf; or at least be given free rein to do so in the absence of a proper brief. In 2013 Ryanair’s first venture into the world of live a Twitter Q&A descended into shambles. The idea was that passengers could post questions to the airline’s boss, Michael O’Leary, using the hashtag “#GrillMOL”. But the CEO seemed unaware that his inappropriate response to one of the first questioners – a woman – would be seen by everyone. Mr O’Leary eventually responded: “Just found out what hashtags are. Learning on da job! Always compliment ladies pics”.

Even before the Q&A got under way it was clear that many disgruntled passengers saw it as an opportunity to take revenge on the airline and were vitriolic in their criticism. Michael O’Leary is a famously combative personality and he may have emerged unscathed but the exercise didn’t win Ryanair any plaudits.

Good governance 

What CEOs do bring is their understanding of good governance and the importance of complying with industry regulations. This particularly applies to the financial services industry, which is heavily regulated. The FCA’s Social Media and Customer Communications Guidance Consultation published last summer, focused on the providers’ use of channels like Twitter and Facebook to promote financial product offerings.

The paper concentrates on the application of Principle 7 – applying a ‘fair, clear and not misleading’ test for every blog post and Tweet. It asserts that you need to apply the usual health warnings when promoting a financial product via social media. However, the line between information provision and recommendation blurs as industry uses social media in customer communications. The FCA is tasked with tightening the middle ground, but until this is addressed, such conversations should remain offline. It goes without saying these decisions, and, in fact every tweet that is issued thereafter, should be closely directed by senior management.

Social media has irrevocably changed the way people and organisations communicate with each other. However, we’re still in the early adopter stage. Some businesses have been quick to embrace these channels. Others have taken a more cautious, piecemeal approach.

Either way, the digital age is upon us, and firms of all shapes and sizes need to align their business strategy with their communications strategy. Social media should not be viewed as a discrete added extra. It’s the front line of defence. If organisations are customer facing, they are exposed to reputational damage. Social media channels can be used to vigorously berate companies but it can also be used to manage crises, if manned and managed properly.

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