Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dear Prudence: Managing Social Media Engagement

After a sloppy and lackluster performance against a marginal competitor the Washington Redskins trudged off the field to a cascade of boos from disgruntled fans. I can only imagine what rookie defensive player Robert Henson thought of this serenade of disapproval.

Actually, I don’t need to speculate at all. Henson tweeted his views more than 50 times after the game to his 1,200 followers.

“All of you fake half hearted Skins fans can…I won’t go there,” he wrote. “But I dislike you very strongly, don’t come to Fed Ex (field) to boo dim wits.”

That gem was followed with this rant, “The question is who are you to say you know what’s best for the team and you work 9 to 5 at McDonalds.”

The next day the Redskins PR staff trotted a sheepish Henson out in front of the local media to apologize. The damage had been done though as the candor of Henson’s tweets made it quite clear where he stands on fan relations. (Photo: The Redskins' Robert Henson gets tied up by teammates, as well as by his own tweets.)

While this incident can be chalked up to the immaturity of a rookie athlete, it illustrates the challenge corporate communications executives face managing and tracking the flow of information by employees via social networks.

There is just so much on the line when it comes to inappropriate disclosure. Consider the public company that violates SEC rules through an inadvertent tweet about a major contract win. Or the private firm that undermines its relationship with a key partner because of a critical blog comment from a mid-level employee.

An adverse consequence of social media activity can also be more subtle. Recently, I identified a new business opportunity after noting a competitor had connected with the newly hired VP of Marketing of a local technology company on LinkedIn.

My alleged touch base call to the marketing lead was met with a “perfect timing…we have just started evaluating public relations firms” response.

In no way am I advocating that companies slam the lid on the social media activities of its employees. When executed in a well defined and measured approach, the measurable ROI of social media is too significant.

Yet, like most aspects of business in today’s ultra-competitive and litigious environment, prudence must be practiced. Here is the counsel we offer to clients:

1. Set a firm organization-wide policy for social media activity, including what can be shared via an employee’s personal interaction. Incorporate these expectations in all human resource materials and consistently remind staff of their responsibilities.

2. Monitor employee activity on a daily basis, along with references to the company. I realize this comes off as a tad big brother-ish, yet (again) the liability of inappropriate disclosure (even when accidental) can be crushing.

Ronald Reagan said it best when referring to Soviet relations in the 1980s, “Trust, but verify.”

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