Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Social media will not destroy your business

"Tweets are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer."

How many times do you see this on a Twitter biog? Ever wonder why people feel the need to create the space between their values and those of their business? The times where this is really essential (security concerns and the like) are rarer than hens' teeth. So why is this such a worry for so many employees and employers?

Employers often don't understand the 'social' bit in 'social media.'

Twitter is a wonder. It's a place where strong alliances can be formed, causes fought, messages heard, conversations held and where vital information can be shared in the time it takes to cross an average road. Business was awfully slow to pick up on it, and many still eye it with suspicion. 

Me: Twitter can help you connect with key people and businesses and really reinforce your values and culture, marking you out from your competitors and creating a powerful and fun presence that your people can contribute to. It can really help them feel a part of things and build loyalty and creativity.

Common response: How much money will it make me? 

Some clearly still don't get it.

Twitter stress, or as I heard it called recently- 'Twanxiety' (yes, I glared at the person responsible.)

We have just under 400 followers on our Twitter account. Some know us personally, some don't. (Both types of people are cool. We'd like more of both please, hem hem, just saying.)

I also tweet in a personal capacity. This is where I tweet a little work stuff, a lot of other stuff. There is brainstorming, humour, sarcasm (mostly about Coldplay), politics, moaning about things (again, Coldplay) and swearing (and not just about Coldplay, whaddya know?)

I felt anxious earlier this year when after the ConnectingHR Unconference, tweeters who followed the work account cottoned on to the personal one and started following there, too. I panicked a bit. I have a certain political allegiance, and so that account is used mainly to comment on current affairs, e.g. my latest frustrations with policy and the process. I started trawling the timeline to see if there was anything incriminating, or that would alienate people I otherwise thought very fine. 

I knew that there was nothing that painted my profession in a bad light. I knew there was nothing disparaging about any of them- they're good folk, so it wasn't like they'd received a drubbing on there. I was just worried about what they'd think having seen this other side of me.

Would they be shocked by personal tweets where I'd criticised a political position, or reinforced a point with use of more colourful language? Would they disconnect because we differed politically?

Social media (alone) cannot destroy you

I hear a lot of anxiety about social media from business owners. Most of it starts with 'What if...' Much of it ends with "... it could destroy our reputation!" Trust me, if you really believe your employees can ruin your brand with a Facebook status or a tweet, you have bigger problems that whether they're talking about work online. These are problems you cannot afford to ignore.

Any employer who expects universal agreement and conformity is in for a shock if they think they'll only see blind allegiance should they trawl employees' Facebook pages. There are the employers who forget that they hired people- with all their brilliant individuality, flaws and diversity of opinions and experiences- and who profess horror when they see something they personally don't like or agree with. 

An employee's Facebook post or tweet may not necessarily damage the company in any way. Is disciplining a staff member who posts about how hacked off they are with their manager really going to make the bigger problem go away? Or would it be better to look at what provoked them and get as much information as possible? What to do when your brand is really damaged (or has the potential to be harmed) is a big issue, and one that sometimes sadly does have to result in action against an employee. But it doesn't mean the uderlying cause- or indeed, the employee- should be dismissed.

Why do they post this stuff?

People say things on the internet that they don't feel able to say in person. This does get taken to extremes where unprovoked abuse is involved, and the debate on 'trolling' and 'cyberbullying' is raging hard once again. The rule I tend to follow is this: if you wouldn't wear it on a T-shirt, don't post it on the web. However this also works when fear or an inability to express oneself is concerned- for example that hacked-off employee could be venting frustration rather than creating a scene in the workplace, having tried several times to raise an issue with their manager and got nowhere. Don't just label it 'irresponsible'- find out why they chose the internet as their listening ear rather than you.

I'll just stop them using social media. Give me a policy.

I wouldn't try. Employers who do are on a hiding to nothing. Don't fight it- use it too. It can be a valuable and lively way to show the human side of your business; look at how construction company Bastows break the mould and how Betfair Poker keep things fun. Heck, I don't understand the first thing about poker but I follow them for sheer amusement value, and because I like what they're doing there. Both share a strong message about who they are and how they work. Their websites tell you what they do, their social media talks about how they do it. It gives you an idea of how it'd feel to work with these people. 

Both businesses have multiple people updating their social media presence, and adopt an open and communicative style that is geared towards connecting and entertaining, rather than merely transmitting a corporate message. Employees generally like this; it creates pride in the brand that you'll find they often adopt when talking about work.

The dividing line

In my own situation, I need not have worried. Smart people seem to be able to separate the two accounts and realise that professionally, I wouldn't dream of communicating in the same way as I do on the personal account. They see that I can set aside my personal opinion and refer purely to the professional position. They also see what my drivers are- how my personal values of equality, fairness, creativity and resourcefulness truly inform how I work.

They see that under my personal account (which you'd never find by Googling my name, top tip there) I am letting off steam.

A few people like me even more for being open and passionate in my views, or for voting the same way they do... the rest? Well, we agree to disagree. It's ok. We're grownups. We might just growl at one another from time to time.

But at least we are all clear on where we stand.

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