Social media, when used properly, is a great tool for growing your business. When used improperly, however, it can actually damage the brand that you’ve worked so hard to build.
If you or your employees tweet inappropriate comments or post questionable photos, whether you’re using the company’s official handle or a personal one, the content may reflect poorly on your company and lead your customers, partners, and the general public to wonder if perhaps you’re creating an environment that fosters this kind of behavior. What’s worse, tweets, status updates, photos, and comments can last forever — even after you delete them — and anyone who sees a message can share it with their contacts, too.
Here are four common ways in which social media can damage your brand and how to prevent the problems.
Problem #1: Content
Take, for example, the following faux pas:
- In 2013, British entertainment retailer HMV laid off 190 workers. However, the company forgot that one of the dismissed employees still had access to the corporate Twitter account. She live-tweeted messages about the layoffs, such as “Mass execution of loyal employees that love the brand,” to HMV’s 61,500 followers. Perhaps more embarrassing for the company was the fact that no one knew how to stop the tweets. (The marketing director was reportedly overheard asking other employees, “How do I shut down Twitter?”) HMV eventually regained control, and the tweets were removed, but not before many quick-thinking social media users took screen shots and forwarded them to others.
- During one of the 2012 presidential debates, President Obama made a comment about his grandmother, who died the week before he was elected in 2008. In response, a KitchenAid employee tweeted that Obama’s grandmother died because she knew how bad his first term would be. After KitchenAid received scores of complaints, the company offered Twitter followers its “deepest apologies for an irresponsible tweet that is in no way representative of the brand’s opinion.”
Incidents like these serve as a reminder to small-business owners to exercise caution when placing your social media efforts in someone else’s hands.
Problem #2: Ownership
Inappropriate content is just one problem presented by social media. Social media ownership is another potentially thorny issue. Tech blogger Noah Kravitz worked for PhoneDog, a website that reviews mobile gadgets. By the time Kravitz left the company in 2010, his professional Twitter account (@PhoneDog_Noah) had amassed 27,000 Twitter followers. Kravitz changed the name of the account to @noahkravitz and started including information from competing companies in his tweets.
PhoneDog subsequently sued Kravitz, arguing that the company was responsible for establishing his online identity. It asked for the equivalent of $2.50 per month for each Twitter follower that Kravitz had when he left PhoneDog. Kravitz countered that the company agreed that the account belonged to him, so the account’s followers also belonged to him. The case was settled in 2012. Although neither side revealed many details, Kravitz was allowed to keep the Twitter account.
Problems #3 and #4: Theft and Privacy
Beyond content and authorship issues, social media can unwittingly pose theft and privacy problems for companies. In a 2011 article for Inc., Minda Zetlin tells the story of a manufacturing company that was moving to a larger warehouse — and eagerly shared this information on Facebook and Twitter. As a result, men posing as movers showed up one day, loaded the company’s equipment into their van, and drove off with more than $1 million in inventory and gear. The thieves were eventually captured, but the company never recovered the stolen items.
Zetlin notes that when businesses send tweets and post photos and videos, they’re often providing information about their organizational culture, employees, and customers. For instance, an executive posting about taking a business trip to a specific location could possibly alert competitors to the organization’s intent to merge with another company.
Often-used passwords are another concern. In June 2012, more than 6 million LinkedIn passwords were reportedly hijacked, which is particularly problematic because many employees use the same passwords for their personal and work accounts. According to a Verizon 2012 Data Breach Investigations Report [PDF], the use of stolen login credentials represents 40 percent of all company data breaches.
How to Prevent Problems
So how can companies protect themselves from social media run amok? Creating a social media policy (with consequences for disobeying it) is a step in the right direction. IT Manager Daily provides some tips and examples to help companies with wording:
- Explain the purpose and intent of the policy. “The purpose of Company XYZ’s social networking policy is to allow the company to take advantage of social media’s business benefits and promote its products/services, contribute to the relevant online dialog, and better engage with customers and prospects, while avoiding the significant risks involved.”
- Include a firm statement of your overall expectations. “Company XYZ employees are expected to use the internet responsibly and productively, and excessive personal internet browsing, including social media use, is not permitted.”
- Warn employees that their social media activities may be monitored. “Company XYZ reserves the right to monitor how employees use company-owned property, including computers and networking equipment, and employees should be mindful that any and all web browsing they do on the company’s premises may be monitored.”
- Be specific regarding posts about the company. “Employees are forbidden from using social networks to post or display comments about co-workers, supervisors, or Company XYZ that are vulgar, obscene, threatening, harassing, or a violation of Company XYZ’s policies on discrimination or harassment,” and “Employees may not use social networks to disclose any confidential or proprietary information about Company XYZ or its employees, customers, or business partners.”
When it comes to passwords, Verizon advises companies with point-of-sale systems to refrain from letting employees browse the web using them. In addition, companies should routinely change passwords, and ask employees not to use work-related passwords for their personal accounts.
Employers should also spell out in advance who gets to keep the Facebook connections and Twitter followers when an employee leaves the organization. Although it’s generally understood that any content created on company time is property of the company, gray areas exist, such as in the case of PhoneDog and Kravitz, demonstrating the need to explicitly define the company’s authorship in writing.
To help protect your small business, make sure your employment contracts stipulate ownership of your social media handles and followers. And, if you’re thinking of firing an employee, limit access to your accounts before you deliver the bad news.