Social Media – Really Worth the Risk?

Came across this paragraph this morning. I’m not going to go into the context – suffice it to say it was the conclusion of a commentary on Barack Obama’s ‘off-the-record’ comment that Kanye West is a ‘jackass’. (Which he is, but that’s another song, as they say.)

 Anyway – it’s not new – it’s what every comms practitioner knows, simply updated for the social media age in which we live.

 “In today’s wired world, every bystander with a camera phone, a blog or a Twitter account can play reporter and turn an off-hand comment into a worldwide news story. For almost any setting, the best policy today is not to say, write or do anything that you don’t want to see in the newspaper tomorrow, on the TV news tonight or on Twitter or YouTube in the next two minutes.”

 So – given that we take this truth to be self-evident – how does this square with official employee use of social media? Already this week I’ve come across – and published – the quite extraordinary assertion that “….since this type of communication is often viewed as less formal than other (sic), there is increased risk for inadvertent disclosure”. And we know, from some very high-profile examples, that – above and beyond inadvertent screw-ups – there are also employees who come over all Tourette’s when confronted by Twitter or YouTube.

 As I’ve said already, I’ve changed my mind. Doing nothing and hoping it will go away is not an option. Every organisation, by now, should either have, or be giving thought to, a social media policy. Preferably one that doesn’t entertain the notion of allowing employees free rein to post to social media either during company time, from company machinery or on behalf of the body corporate. The sanctions against anyone doing it should be quite draconian.

 I was, frankly, open-mouthed when I found out that WholeFoods has over 1,370,000 followers on Twitter. It is extraordinary. I was reasonably shaken when I saw Starbucks had nearly 294,000. Even allowing for the large proportion who became followers on their first visit to Twitter and have never visited again, that still a lot of potential dialogue and a lot of room for error.

 I know that Ford and Coke have created social media ambassadors – carefully trained, briefed and monitored social media spokespeople – to deal with their respective 15,000 and 8,500 followers. I’m presuming that WholeFoods and Starbucks has done the same.

 Best Buy, with its Twelpforce, hasn’t and the experiment is not considered, universally, a success. They’ve had some Tourette’s incidents with some of their employee Tweeters.

 The point is, I guess, that I’m not convinced of the value-add of social media. If it didn’t exist, would anyone actually bother to invent it? What I am convinced of is the increasing amount of time, effort and budget that is going to have to be invested in it – and its ancillary activities like training and monitoring – if those companies who have so bravely (and so very quickly) embraced the technology are going to keep on top of it.

 I am also convinced that the rise of social media has introduced a new, and very elevated, level of risk into external and internal corporate communications that we, the gatekeepers, ignore at our peril. As social media cannot be (properly) monitored and isn’t regulated, so it is difficult to create a plan for its use or target the message.

 Every organisation should, by now, either have, or be working on, a social media policy. And it should aim to restrict corporate usage. Before the trouble starts.

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