Social media in business, and how it is governed



As society continues to climb the mountain that is today’s information age, we focus more and more on the importance of social media as a communication tool, not only for individuals, but also for organisations of all shapes and sizes.

The dramatic fashion in which digital communication has arrived and declared its worth has seen many of these organisations walking circles in its dust, struggling to keep pace. While some seem reluctant to open their arms to change, others are unable to fully grasp the notion of this new element of the business environment. This is made obvious by company social media profiles that resemble a digital ghost town, far more well-acquainted with tumbleweed than Tumblr.

Given social media’s rapidly changing nature (it’s hard to conquer a mountain that continues to grow), we have reached a point now where it is expected that organisations have a digital presence. From the public’s perspective this allows for a greater insight into an organisation’s personality, and for a better two-way relationship. While this seems to place more power in the individual’s hands, from an organisation’s perspective it offers an opportunity to reach and connect with the masses on a more direct and personal note, and build closer relationships with their target markets. Social forums can be a ‘feeler’, a general but generally accurate representation of the collective conscious.

For example, the US arm of Nike shoes recently posted a picture of a pair of sneakers set for a limited edition release. They were the usual set of kicks, with an addition: a set of plastic ankle chains. Within hours of releasing the photo on Facebook, 3500 comments were posted – and most of them were scathing. What Nike failed to foresee was that while the tagline ‘Got a soccer game so hot you lock your kicks to your ankles?’ was pretty catchy, the chains harkened back to the days of slavery – not something to associate your brand with. One commenter even pointed out: ‘How would a Jewish person feel if Nike decided to have a shoe with a swastika on it and tried to claim it was OK in the name of fashion?’

But the lesson is in what Nike did next: they scrapped the shoe. They tested the waters, and they were cold, and so they listened, and they acted.

There is no denying that digital communication is becoming increasingly prevalent and important in the business environment. But with this growing importance, organisations are continually discovering that the online world is far less tame than a mere glance suggests. So when they approach the internet they do so with caution, and typically with a set of rules to guide them: post on Twitter at least once a day; upload a photo to Facebook every week; be professional but friendly.

And so, social media guidelines have emerged. The ACT government released a 42 page Social Media Policy Guidelines back in March 2012  and it’s not light reading. What comes across most strongly is a sense of trepidation and mistrust; Web 2.0 is a scary place where parties can be discredited and governments can crumble (not an unreasonable fear, considering the power of social media in the Arab Spring). This leads to stringent and restrictive policies where legal and bureaucratic concerns outweigh the more free-form character of social media. If you want proof, just ask yourself: have you ever read a good tweet from the Greens? The Labor Party? The Liberals? The Nationals? Any government arm or organisation?

Government doesn’t use social media well; it uses it safely.

This might be an important tip for the likes of Qantas, McDonald’s and Chrysler, all of which have committed various social media sins.

Qantas discovered posting photos on Twitter of two men wearing wigs with their faces painted black, in a competition to dress up like Australia’s Fijian-born rugby union star, Radike Samo wasn’t the smartest idea.

McDonald’s learned how easily the Twitter community can hijack a ‘hashtag’ such as #McDStories and use it as a very public forum for negative feedback.

And Chrysler was unfortunate enough to have found out the hard way after an employee of the social media firm they hired (go figure) accidentally posted this from the Chrysler Twitter account instead of his own: ‘I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f**king drive.’

So what policies or guidelines can guarantee a controlled and positive online reputation? If such policies exist, no one has discovered them yet. But a few ground rules spring to mind:

  • Think about the message.
  • Think about the medium.
  • Think about the environment.
  • Think about the audience.

And perhaps most importantly:

  • Be nice.

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