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Managing the risks of social media
There is no denying social media’s impact on human as well as business communications. Technology-enabled social networking is providing remarkable new ways for people to connect and forge relationships. For organisations, social media platforms offer new opportunities to engage clients and partners, build brand awareness and involve the public in interesting ways that can help extend both reach and appeal. But ill-informed or irresponsible social media usage can have severe ramifications for individuals and organisations that do not have effective social media policies in place.
The growing social
The growth and influence of online social networks is astounding. Facebook alone has racked up 1.06 billion monthly active users, 680 million mobile users and more than 50 million pages.
Twitter, the micro-blogging site, has more than 500 million total users and more than 200 million active users. These are only two out of hundreds of online communities networking people, business and interest groups.
It would be foolish for any organisation to ignore or deny the value of social media platforms as a strategic business resource. This is why companies are moving in droves to establish an online, social media presence. But many companies are only now going where their employees already are.
Employees, in their personal capacity, are likely to already have accounts with popular social media platforms. They are likely to be sharing their opinions there, in private, on a public platform.
To further complicate matters, the posts—whether it’s comments, photos or videos—are subject to the laws of the country of the service provider (typically the United States). This is why employee use of social media can be a controversial topic.
The right to express
Employers are increasingly encountering scenarios where attention is brought to an employee’s posting on a social network that can be interpreted as offensive, threatening or defamatory to the company or to co-workers.
In the US, according to a January 2013 ruling by the National Labour Relations Board, it is legal to voice negative opinions about your employer (on a personal account) if you’re speaking on behalf of a group of employees and if your intention is to improve the conditions of your job.
The ruling also includes guidelines on speech that is “offensive” or qualifies as “venting”. This kind of legal guidance is obviously helpful in informing employer social media policies.
However, since US law does not apply outside of the US, employers and employees should be mindful of the legal framework governing their social media exploits.
In the British Commonwealth, for example, a number of counties, still operate under a legal framework designed for a colonial context where the notion of free speech was seen as a threat to ruling class and to the stability of the empire. Laws on libel and defamation of character, still in effect to this day in many Commonwealth countries, are a product of that era.
This is one reason why social media platforms are proving to be especially popular in countries where there is limited freedom of expression. Social media platforms provide a global outlet for personal expression.
The social media platforms themselves are amoral. How they are ultimately used, however, hinge on an individual’s regard for others. This is why social media expressions are a useful pointer to the wider state of a society.
So, in organisations or in societies where individuals perceive their opinions will not be heeded, social networks represent a powerful, empowering—though potentially damaging—outlet of expression. If employees perceive that avenues for safe expression or fair redress do not exist in-house, social media presents a ready alternative.
Leadership, not technology
But how do you proceed in the absence of legal guidelines? What should your social media policy say and do? That ultimately will depend on your organisation’s particular needs and its values system.
As organisations make efforts to navigate the choppy waters of online social media management, a corporate social media policy can act as an effective rudder. But, beyond policy, an informed leadership perspective is even more important to guiding employers toward more progressive, open-minded approaches to social media.
The extent to which employers value employee and customer views, even when contradictory to current corporate positions, will always be reflected in corporate communications policy and practice. A mature leadership approach can dictate how effectively technology is leveraged for the corporate good and can even help inform wider industry labour policies.
Employers should communicate their expectations clearly to employees. At the same time, employees’ rights to express themselves should not be unfairly limited. If there is imbalance in this equation, no one wins.
Organisations should use social media policies to help guide their employees into habits of using social networks responsibly. Companies can offer social media training programmes to encourage employers to use the technology in positive, beneficial ways, while making clear the appropriate limits of that use.
In an increasingly interconnected world, a well thought out social media policy can be a strategic tool in mitigating risk for both the employer and the employee.
However, without a clear policy and a corporate culture that encourages meaningful dialogue, the risks of social media become far more ominous than the benefits.
Bevil Wooding is the chief knowledge officer of Congress WBN, a values-based, international non-profit organisation and an Internet strategist with US-based Packet Clearing House. Follow on Twitter: @bevilwooding or at: facebook.com/bevilwooding or contact via e-mail at: [email protected]
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