Whether you are into social networking or not, there is no denying its popularity. In April of 2009, Facebook surpassed 200 million users. More and more companies are turning to social networking sites as a new means of advertising their products and services, especially to those tough to reach young people.
But if it’s showing up in this column, you can guess there must be risk involved. Unfortunately, yes. Social networking sites offer companies the means to communicate directly with hundreds of millions of people. But it also offers individuals the same power. Combine that with the higher degree of anonymity available to people operating on the Internet and individuals have an enormous ability to affect the fortunes and reputations of companies.
SO WHAT TOPPINGS WOULD YOU LIKE WITH THAT?The single greatest threat of social networking sites is the ability to quickly disseminate destructive information about the company to a huge number of people. The most famous example is a now infamous video from two now former employees of Domino’s Pizza. The employees took a video camera into their store kitchen and filmed themselves performing disgusting and unsanitary acts to food products which they then sold to actual customers. The video went “viral” overnight and was viewed hundreds-of-millions of times. Domino’s corporate executives later conservatively estimated that the video cost them 1-2 percent of their yearly sales - about $37 million dollars. All from two reckless employees who gained nothing other than brief notoriety.
Such incidents are certainly among the most worrying risks of social networking sites, but they are by no means the only ones.
THEY'RE MY EMPLOYEES, NOT MY FRIENDSThe term social networking is itself misleading. Businesses have increasingly turned social networking sites into another medium of advertising space. These days, a new movie not only has a Website (Websites are soooo 1990s), it absolutely must have a Facebook page and Twitter page. And just as businesses have begun to blur the lines between business and personal for these new media, employees have begun to do the same.
Younger supervisors are increasingly reporting a delicate problem - the employees who work for them are trying to “friend them.” For those who have never used Facebook, friending someone is essentially a status that a Facebook account holder grants to other Facebook account holders to access their personal page and post comments and photos. Although that may seem harmless enough, it is actually quite problematic.
As any supervisor knows, the relationship between employer and employee is a complicated one. A good supervisor commands both the respect and a bit of fear from his or her employees. But supervisors are people too. And who doesn’t “let their hair down” on the weekends. Pre-Facebook that was fine. A supervisor could be a person on the weekends and a boss during the week. But sometimes what happens in Vegas doesn’t necessarily stay in Vegas.
Many Facebook users take quizzes or polls that reveal personal information about themselves. Some of the quizzes are extremely personal. Most supervisors are happy to share that information with their close friends, but what about the employees upon whose respect and a tinge of fear the position requires. Even worse, what happens when your employees see the photos of you and your high school friends from last weekend’s trip to New Orleans?
NO WAY! I'M OFF THE CLOCKAs if the risks of social networking sites weren’t great enough, they pose a unique problem for employers. One of the biggest challenges for employers in the early days of the Internet - and maybe even still today - was the “slacker factor.” Employees could surf the web for hours - hours not spent being productive for the company. Recent developments in Internet monitoring and website blocking software have greatly reduced this problem for employers.
But social networking sites are different. They are different because the risks they pose can occur while an employee is “off the clock.” Employees can just as easily post disparaging comments about their company from the comfort of their living room as they can from their cubicle. Even more easily if the company blocks access to social networking sites.
Such vulnerabilities make an outright ban on employee use of social networking sites impractical. Supervisors and employers must focus their efforts not on controlling access to these sites but on controlling the messages put out on them by their employees - and non-employees.
YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK, NOT THE RIGHT TO SAY WHATEVER YOU WANTThe first step in insulating your company from Facebook and Twitter is developing a company social networking policy. The policy does two things. First, it tells your employees that you know all about Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, and that you take what happens on those sites seriously. Second, it gives your employees guidance on what is expected of them.
It’s unrealistic to tell your employees never to post anything about the company on their sites. Work is a huge part of life and it’s only natural that employees will want to talk about things that go on in the office along with lots of other things. This has been going on for years during the lunch hour and around the water cooler. Only now, it’s posted electronically in places where millions of people can read it.
SO WHAT'S IN A GOOD POLICY?•Don’t Talk Bad About the Company
Start by reminding your employees that you are paying attention to what gets posted on Facebook and Twitter. That alone will deter many employees from making irresponsible comments. Give guidelines to what sorts of comments are prohibited. Don’t disparage the company. Don’t disparage the boss. Don’t reveal intimate details of the new advertising campaign or the world-beating new product the company is about to introduce.
•The Internet Is Forever
Remind your employees that what they post on the Internet lasts forever. Whatever they write will be available for viewing for all time. And not only will it always be viewable, everyone will always know that they posted it. Even on sites where it appears a person may post anonymously, their IP address is tracked by the Internet service provider. And that is discoverable if a someone is determined enough.
•Designating a Social Networking Team
Companies should also consider putting together a “social media team.” One of the truest lessons of the information age is that the way in which information is transmitted changes quickly, while the response of legal and regulatory institutions is slow. A designated team can monitor changes in technology, stay on top of the latest sites, and advise management of new developments. This team may include younger, tech savvy employees, and it should meet on a regular basis.
Another key role for the social media team should be to monitor the company’s reputation on the Web. Setting up a “Google alert,” for example, will help alert the company early on when something is being said about it. Team members should also conduct regular checks of YouTube, MySpace, and other popular social media sites for any mention of the company. Who knows, you might even find something positive being said that you may want to publish to a wider audience.
•Having Your Own Online Presence
One of the first things Domino’s did when its employees released that video was to release a response on its own sites. This response allowed the company to get its own message out there early in the news cycle.
A well-designed social networking site can also serve as an excellent recruiting or marketing tool - especially when trying to connect directly with young, tech savvy clients or employees. If the company needs to get a message out - say announcing a temporary facility closure due to inclement weather, posting the message on a company Facebook page will reach a lot of employees.
Before launching a site, consider what your peers are doing and how to develop a site that is helpful but not intrusive. Social networking sites are generally free, but someone who is tech-savvy should be specifically designated to oversee the site on a regular basis. A badly managed presence may be worse than none at all.
THE WEB 2.0The only thing Web 2.0 really means is that there is going to be a Web 3.0. And no one really knows what that will be either. As the ability to transmit information becomes faster and more personal, companies must develop flexibility to respond to both the challenges and opportunities of information technology. A company prepared for today is outdated tomorrow.