Be the Brand: Required Involvement in Social Media – Part 1

Based on our presentation at MIT: Media in Transition 7

There’s been much written about the professional risk of social media use for individuals and for businesses; in media reports as well as a recent National Labor Relations Board decision regarding employees use of Facebook to complain about a supervisor

But what happens when employees are encouraged (or required by the terms of employment) to publicly represent a company or brand through personal use of social media?

Several years ago, many companies were skittish about employee use of blogs and other social networking tools. More recently, however, some brands are increasingly creating “official” company social media profiles as well as establishing social media policies to encourage employees to unofficially represent a company via social media during the work day and off-hours, with the understanding that transparency and personal contact are widely seen as important to success in social media communication and marketing. This article discusses issues involving intellectual property, privacy, and the bounds of employment within personal and professional social media use.

Created primarily for individual consumer use, social technologies are now being widely adopted as marketing and communications tools by corporate entities. 83% of the 2010 Inc. 500 businesses use social media for marketing, according to a study by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. Despite this widespread adoption, few companies and organizations have developed any social media guidelines for their employees internal or external use. According to a 2010 report from Manpower, “Social Networks vs. Management,” only one-fifth of companies worldwide have any employee policies or guidelines for employee social media use. Corporate social media practice by nature blurs the line between personal and professional communication, in part because of its ease of use, and secondly because of its reliance on personal networks and non-commercial content and information sharing for its effectiveness.

This reliance is seen as a key to effective and even encouraged social media practice (for example, just recently Ultimate Fighting Championship is offering $5,000 bonuses to its athletes that use Twitter regularly) but can lead to an uncomfortable blurring of personal and professional social media personas for the individuals who represent the public voice of a brand via social media.

Since many companies use social media primarily for marketing or profit-driven purposes, employees who were hired based on a reputation built from their personal or non-commercial online content (i.e. a personal blog or amateur YouTube videos) can face restrictions in their communication and content sharing based on organizational culture and/or a company’s social media guidelines and policies for employees. This is a very from the sharing and passion-driven mindset that has driven non-commercial online culture up to this point. As Clay Shirky notes in Cognitive Surplus

People sharing their writing or videos or their medical symptoms … are motivated by something other than the desire for money [W]hat if the contributors aren’t workers? What if they really are contributors,quite specificallly intending their contributions to be acts of sharing rather than production? What if their labors are labors of love?

The following are examples of what happens when the sharing motive of social media and the production motive of commercial media are at odds.

Personal vs Professional Social Media Use

There are numerous anecdotal examples of the blurred personal and professional line that is crossed via social media use. Some of them involve individuals mistakenly using professional accounts to send messages intended for their personal account:

Red Cross
In February, a Red Cross Employee accidently sent a tweet meant for her personal account about drinking beer on the official Red Cross twitter feed after work hours, Red Cross deletes the tweet after nearly two hours, and posts an explanation on their blog the next day. Dogfish Head, the brewery that is mentioned in the tweet, encourages their followers to donate to the Red Cross after the free publicity.

A month later, an employee of Chrysler’s social media agency New Media Strategies, sends a more damaging tweet, presumably on his way to work:

“I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to [expletive] drive.’

NMS was subsequently released for their contract with Chrysler.

Other examples involve employees (sometimes executive level) making noticable gaffes of etiquette and good taste

Kenneth Cole
In an apparent attempt at humor, fashion designer Kenneth Cole used Twitter to link an upcoming collection launch to the democratic uprising in Egypt, using the #cairo hashtag (a keyword used by twitter users to follow a trending topic)

There are still other examples involving individuals who were affected professionally by comments made on personal social media accounts:

Nir Rosen
NYU journalist and professor Nir Rosen used Twitter to make a number of off-color remarks about journalist Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Egypt. Although Rosen was using his personal account to make these comments, he still came under public scrutiny and criticism and eventually submitted his resignation as a fellow at NYU’s Center on Law and Security.

Gilbert Gottfried
Comedian Gilbert Gottfried (who also serves as the voice of insurance company Aflac’s duck spokesanimal) posted several off-color jokes to his personal Twitter about the earthquake and tsunami in Japan — which is a market that accounts for 75 percent of Aflac’s revenue. Gottfried was subsequenty fired.

Tools vs Culture

Why does this keep happening? What continues to blur the line between professional and personal activity online? It’s a combination of tools and culture:

Social sharing benefits from the ease of social technology tools to post messages in real time from multiple channels and sources. The downside to this is the possibility of sending classified or inappropriate information prematurely or to the wrong audience. (i.e.Hootsuite)
Another issue is that social sharing technologies were creating for individual and personal communication, but are now being used for traditional audience-oriented communications. For example, both Facebook and Twitter were developed with the intent that individuals would communicate with their social network, but is now being used for large scale, audience-based communication.

While Facebook has now adapted to accomodate different levels of personal, group and audience-based communications (Facebook brand pages, groups, personal profiles), Twitter remains an all-or-nothing affair, so to speak with personal communications (Direct Messaging) and broadcast/audience based communication being the only two options for communication.

Politicing social media practice can be helpful to set a standard and standardized employee culture but may negatively impact the effectiveness of social media goals.

Legal departments are so risk averse that if companies followed them explicitly, most would not participate in social media at all. To participate in social media is to assume some level of risk and to relinquish some control, so companies should be aware of this when drafting a social media policy.

Part 2 coming soon.

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