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How Corporations Should Adjust to New Social Media Realities

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This article from CNBC caught my eye: Why One BP Subcontractor Tweeted the Top Kill. Here’s an excerpt:

“A few hours after that, Grindal tweeted that BP had shut him down: “Wow, just got a scathing call from mgmt, requesting I tone down my twitter info.” He then remained silent until May 29—when BP confirmed the failure of the Top Kill operation and the company’s shares plummeted 15 percent.”

Judging by the proliferation of Twitter and Facebook related stories coming out of CNBC and other major business news outlets, it’s clear that social media is on the business radar in a big way. Social media is sinking in to the corporate consciousness. Whether it be whistle blowers, product reviewers, disgruntled employees or frustrated customers – people are realizing their opinions carry weight and potentially exert enormous influence over a company’s conduct, policies, products and services.

The question I posed on Facebook:

Twitter puts a lot of pressure on companies to behave – this is a good thing. On the other hand, social media makes good corporate citizens vulnerable to unwarranted attacks from cranks. How can a large firm with a recognized brand respond to these new social media realities?

The first step corporations must take in dealing with social media is to accept it. There’s no fighting social media and there’s no ignoring it. Accepting social media is a big task in and of itself. If corporate leadership still sees social media as something frivolous, the corporation is in trouble, because it’s going to take strong leadership at the top to acclimate the rank and file to the new realities of a business environment where even closely guarded information is increasingly public.

Another key step is to engage in serious brand monitoring. You can’t respond if you don’t listen. And, since social media is very much a real time medium, slow response is almost as bad as no response. Companies continually shoot themselves in the foot by ignoring social buzz around their brand. Sometimes it’s intentional, but more often it’s simply a matter of being oblivious. A lack of response sends the worst possible message to both a company’s brand loyalists and its detractors: silence says that we don’t care, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do. Who wants to deal with a company like that?

Have a proactive engagement strategy. Listening is obviously important, or at least I hope it’s obvious. But there’s no reason why social media engagement should be 100% reactive. A vast number of leading brands have figured this out and are doing an amazing job of communicating brand value and entertainingly engaging fans, especially on Facebook. Take a look at Facebook pages for Victoria’s Secret or Men’s Warehouse or Discount Tire, three rather diverse brands that come to mind. Whether they have 11 million fans, like Victoria, or several thousand, like Men’s Warehouse, they’re connecting with the right audience, building brand loyalty and generating sales conversion activities. The downside of all this is … oh yeah, there isn’t one.

Lift the embargo. Too many companies prevent employees from using Facebook at work. Too many companies enforce (or create the illusion of enforcing) restrictive policies that limit or attempt to control what an employee says on social networks. I find such policies to be self defeating in the extreme. The more a firm tries to stifle communication, the greater the backlash and ensuing damage to the brand, morale and ultimately, sales.

Acclimate the team. There’s no doubt firms have legitimate message management issues with respect to employee communication in social media. Employees do need to understand that freedom to communicate carries responsibilities, and the firms they work for need to protect trade secrets and not expose the corporate entity to litigation for reckless, libelous remarks, to cite a couple examples. Common sense is usually a good guide, but firms must educate their team so they fully understand the boundaries and the consequences of overstepping them.

Over to You
How is your company adapting to social media?