After studying this section you should be able to do the following:
- Illustrate several examples of effective and poor social media use.
- Recognize the skills and issues involved in creating and staffing an effective social media awareness and response team (SMART).
- List and describe key components that should be included in any firm’s social media policy.
- Understand the implications of ethical issues in social media such as “sock puppetry” and “astroturfing” and provide examples and outcomes of firms and managers who used social media as a vehicle for dishonesty.
- List and describe tools for monitoring social media activity relating to a firm, its brands, and staff.
- Understand issues involved in establishing a social media presence, including the embassy approach, openness, and staffing.
- Discuss how firms can engage and respond through social media, and how companies should plan for potential issues and crises.
For an example of how outrage can go viral, consider Dave Carroll1. The Canadian singer-songwriter was traveling with his band Sons of Maxwell on a United Airlines flight from Nova Scotia to Nebraska when, during a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Carroll saw baggage handlers roughly tossing his guitar case. The musician’s $3,500 Taylor guitar was in pieces by the time it arrived in Omaha. In the midst of a busy tour schedule, Carroll didn’t have time to follow up on the incident until after United’s twenty-four-hour period for filing a complaint for restitution had expired. When United refused to compensate him for the damage, Carroll penned the four-minute country ditty “United Breaks Guitars,” performed it in a video, and uploaded the clip to YouTube (sample lyrics: “I should have gone with someone else or gone by car…’cuz United breaks guitars”). Carroll even called out the unyielding United rep by name. Take that, Ms. Irlwig! (Note to customer service reps everywhere: you’re always on.)
The clip went viral, receiving 150,000 views its first day and five million more by the next month. Well into the next year, “United Breaks Guitars” remained the top result on YouTube when searching the term “United.” No other topic mentioning that word—not “United States,” “United Nations,” or “Manchester United”—ranked ahead of this one customer’s outrage.
Dave Carroll’s ode to his bad airline experience, “United Breaks Guitars,” went viral, garnering millions of views.
Scarring social media posts don’t just come from outside the firm. Earlier that same year employees of Domino’s Pizza outlet in Conover, North Carolina, created what they thought would be a funny gross-out video for their friends. Posted to YouTube, the resulting footage of the firm’s brand alongside vile acts of food prep was seen by over one million viewers before it was removed. Over 4.3 million references to the incident can be found on Google, and many of the leading print and broadcast outlets covered the story. The perpetrators were arrested, the Domino’s storefront where the incident occurred was closed, and the firm’s president made a painful apology (on YouTube, of course).
Not all firms choose to aggressively engage social media. As of this writing some major brands still lack a notable social media presence (Apple comes immediately to mind). But your customers are there and they’re talking about your organization, its products, and its competitors. Your employees are there, too, and without guidance, they can step on a social grenade with your firm left to pick out the shrapnel. Soon, nearly everyone will carry the Internet in their pocket. Phones and MP3 players are armed with video cameras capable of recording every customer outrage, corporate blunder, ethical lapse, and rogue employee. Social media posts can linger forever online, like a graffiti tag attached to your firm’s reputation. Get used to it—that genie isn’t going back in the bottle.
As the “United Breaks Guitars” and “Domino’s Gross Out” incidents show, social media will impact a firm whether it chooses to engage online or not. An awareness of the power of social media can shape customer support engagement and crisis response, and strong corporate policies on social media use might have given the clueless Domino’s pranksters a heads-up that their planned video would get them fired and arrested. Given the power of social media, it’s time for all firms to get SMART, creating a social media awareness and response team. While one size doesn’t fit all, this section details key issues behind SMART capabilities, including creating the social media team, establishing firmwide policies, monitoring activity inside and outside the firm, establishing the social media presence, and managing social media engagement and response.
Creating the Team
Firms need to treat social media engagement as a key corporate function with clear and recognizable leadership within the organization. Social media is no longer an ad hoc side job or a task delegated to an intern. When McDonald’s named its first social media chief, the company announced that it was important to have someone “dedicated 100% of the time, rather than someone who’s got a day job on top of a day job” (York, 2010). Firms without social media baked into employee job functions often find that their online efforts are started with enthusiasm, only to suffer under a lack of oversight and follow-through. One hotel operator found franchisees were quick to create Facebook pages, but many rarely monitored them. Customers later notified the firm that unmonitored hotel “fan” pages contained offensive messages—a racist rant on one, paternity claims against an employee on another.
Organizations with a clearly established leadership role for social media can help create consistency in firm dialogue; develop and communicate policy; create and share institutional knowledge; provide training, guidance, and suggestions; offer a place to escalate issues in the event of a crisis or opportunity; and catch conflicts that might arise if different divisions engage without coordination.
While firms are building social media responsibility into job descriptions, also recognize that social media is a team sport that requires input from staffers throughout an organization. The social media team needs support from public relations, marketing, customer support, HR, legal, IT, and other groups, all while acknowledging that what’s happening in the social media space is distinct from traditional roles in these disciplines. The team will hone unique skills in technology, analytics, and design, as well as skills for using social media for online conversations, listening, trust building, outreach, engagement, and response. As an example of the interdisciplinary nature of social media practice, consider that the social media team at Starbucks (regarded by some as the best in the business) is organized under the interdisciplinary “vice president of brand, content, and online2.”
Also note that while organizations with SMARTs (social media teams) provide leadership, support, and guidance, they don’t necessarily drive all efforts. GM’s social media team includes representatives from all the major brands. The idea is that employees in the divisions are still the best to engage online once they’ve been trained and given operational guardrails. Says GM’s social media chief, “I can’t go in to Chevrolet and tell them ‘I know your story better than you do, let me tell it on the Web’” (Barger, 2009)3. Similarly, the roughly fifty Starbucks “Idea Partners” who participate in MyStarbucksIdea are specialists. Part of their job is to manage the company’s social media. In this way, conversations about the Starbucks Card are handled by card team experts, and merchandise dialogue has a product specialist who knows that business best. Many firms find that the social media team is key for coordination and supervision (e.g., ensuring that different divisions don’t overload consumers with too much or inconsistent contact), but the dynamics of specific engagement still belong with the folks who know products, services, and customers best.
Responsibilities and Policy Setting
In an age where a generation has grown up posting shoot-from-the-hip status updates and YouTube is seen as a fame vehicle for those willing to perform sensational acts, establishing corporate policies and setting employee expectations are imperative for all organizations. The employees who don’t understand the impact of social media on the firm can do serious damage to their employers and their careers (look to Domino’s for an example of what can go wrong).
Many experts suggest that a good social media policy needs to be three things: “short, simple, and clear” (Soat, 2010). Fortunately, most firms don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Several firms, including Best Buy, IBM, Intel, The American Red Cross, and Australian telecom giant Telstra, have made their social media policies public.
Most guidelines emphasize the “three Rs”: representation, responsibility, and respect.
- Representation. Employees need clear and explicit guidelines on expectations for social media engagement. Are they empowered to speak on behalf of the firm? If they do, it is critical that employees transparently disclose this to avoid legal action. U.S. Federal Trade Commission rules require disclosure of relationships that may influence online testimonial or endorsement. On top of this, many industries have additional compliance requirements (e.g., governing privacy in the health and insurance fields, retention of correspondence and disclosure for financial services firms). Firms may also want to provide guidelines on initiating and conducting dialogue, when to respond online, and how to escalate issues within the organization.
- Responsibility. Employees need to take responsibility for their online actions. Firms must set explicit expectations for disclosure, confidentiality and security, and provide examples of engagement done right, as well as what is unacceptable. An effective social voice is based on trust, so accuracy, transparency, and accountability must be emphasized. Consequences for violations should be clear.
- Respect. Best Buy’s policy for its Twelpforce explicitly states participants must “honor our differences” and “act ethically and responsibly.” Many employees can use the reminder. Sure customer service is a tough task and every rep has a story about an unreasonable client. But there’s a difference between letting off steam around the water cooler and venting online. Virgin Atlantic fired thirteen of the airline’s staffers after they posted passenger insults and inappropriate inside jokes on Facebook (Conway, 2008).
Policies also need to have teeth. Remember, a fourth “R” is at stake—reputation (both the firm’s and the employee’s). Violators should know the consequences of breaking firm rules and policies should be backed by action. Best Buy’s policy simply states, “Just in case you are forgetful or ignore the guidelines above, here’s what could happen. You could get fired (and it’s embarrassing to lose your job for something that’s so easily avoided).”
Despite these concerns, trying to micromanage employee social media use is probably not the answer. At IBM, rules for online behavior are surprisingly open. The firm’s code of conduct reminds employees to remember privacy, respect, and confidentiality in all electronic communications. Anonymity is not permitted on IBM’s systems, making everyone accountable for their actions. As for external postings, the firm insists that employees not disparage competitors or reveal customers’ names without permission and asks that any employee posts from IBM accounts or that mention the firm also include disclosures indicating that opinions and thoughts shared publicly are the individual’s and not Big Blue’s.
Some firms have more complex social media management challenges. Consider hotels and restaurants where outlets are owned and operated by franchisees rather than the firm. McDonald’s social media team provides additional guidance so that regional operations can create, for example, a Twitter handle (e.g., @mcdonalds_cincy) that handle a promotion in Cincinnati that might not run in other regions (York, 2010). A social media team can provide coordination while giving up the necessary control. Without this kind of coordination, customer communication can quickly become a mess.
Training is also a critical part of the SMART mandate. GM offers an intranet-delivered video course introducing newbies to the basics of social media and to firm policies and expectations. GM also trains employees to become “social media proselytizers and teachers.” GM hopes this approach enables experts to interact directly with customers and partners, allowing the firm to offer authentic and knowledgeable voices online.
Training should also cover information security and potential threats. Social media has become a magnet for phishing, virus distribution, and other nefarious online activity. Over one-third of social networking users claim to have been sent malware via social networking sites (see Chapter 13 “Information Security: Barbarians at the Gateway (and Just About Everywhere Else)”). The social media team will need to monitor threats and spread the word on how employees can surf safe and surf smart.
Since social media is so public, it’s easy to amass examples of what works and what doesn’t, adding these to the firm’s training materials. The social media team provides a catch point for institutional knowledge and industry best practice; and the team can update programs over time as new issues, guidelines, technologies, and legislation emerge.
The social media space introduces a tension between allowing expression (among employees and by the broader community) and protecting the brand. Firms will fall closer to one end or the other of this continuum depending on compliance requirements, comfort level, and goals. Expect the organization’s position to move. Firms will be cautious as negative issues erupt, others will jump in as new technologies become hot and early movers generate buzz and demonstrate results. But it’s the SMART responsibility to avoid knee-jerk reaction and to shepherd firm efforts with the professionalism and discipline of other management domains.
Astroturfing and Sock Puppets
Social media can be a cruel space. Sharp-tongued comments can shred a firm’s reputation and staff might be tempted to make anonymous posts defending or promoting the firm. Don’t do it! Not only is it a violation of FTC rules, IP addresses and other online breadcrumbs often leave a trail that exposes deceit.
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey fell victim to this kind of temptation, but his actions were eventually, and quite embarrassingly, uncovered. For years, Mackey used a pseudonym to contribute to online message boards, talking up Whole Foods stock and disparaging competitors. When Mackey was unmasked, years of comments were publicly attributed to him. The New York Times cited one particularly cringe-worthy post where Mackey used the pseudonym to complement his own good looks, writing, “I like Mackey’s haircut. I think he looks cute” (Martin, 2007)!
Fake personas set up to sing your own praises are known as sock puppets among the digerati, and the practice of lining comment and feedback forums with positive feedback is known as astroturfing. Do it and it could cost you. The firm behind the cosmetic procedure known as the Lifestyle Lift was fined $300,000 in civil penalties after the New York Attorney General’s office discovered that the firm’s employees had posed as plastic surgery patients and wrote glowing reviews of the procedure (Miller, 2009).
Review sites themselves will also take action. TripAdvisor penalizes firms if it’s discovered that customers are offered some sort of incentive for posting positive reviews. The firm also employs a series of sophisticated automated techniques as well as manual staff review to uncover suspicious activity. Violators risk penalties that include being banned from the service.
Your customers will also use social media keep you honest. Several ski resorts have been embarrassed when tweets and other social media posts exposed them as overstating snowfall results. There’s even an iPhone app skiers can use to expose inaccurate claims (Rathke, 2010).
So keep that ethical bar high—you never know when technology will get sophisticated enough to reveal wrongdoings.