How Social Media Disasters Can Tarnish Brands

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Gaffes by businesses, celebrities, and politicians on Twitter and Facebook have been with us since the advent of social media, but recent events have highlighted two very serious consequences that may not have been clear to those taking a cavalier attitude towards social media behavior.

  1. Social media actions can have legal consequences. Martin Shkreli has been a divisive figure since he originally gained the media’s attention in 2015 for raising the price of a vital AIDS drug by 5000%. While Shkreli has been suspended from Twitter in the past, his recent Facebook post (offering $5000 in exchange for his followers getting a strand of Hillary Clinton’s hair) led to a Federal Judge revoking his bail on a separate trial and sending him to jail.
  2. Social media actions can bring scrutiny above and beyond the problematic post itself. Ted Cruz’s official Twitter account “liked” a pornographic video posted by the account “Sexuall Posts,” and while the post has subsequently been unliked, questions surrounding the situation — and the response by internet users and political analysts — have quickly ballooned. People have started digging through Ted Cruz’s past legal work, pointing out apparent hypocrisies, and thus moving the coverage beyond the like itself toward larger questions of competency, e.g. who on the social team had access, whether the like was done by Ted Cruz himself, and why there hasn’t yet been a clear denial.

Preventing social media disasters
While the U.S. military routinely denies active duty personnel the ability to freely post on social media for reasons of operational security, private generally corporations prefer not to “lock down” the accounts of their executives, employees, or partners. Unfortunately, taking this draconian step is the only way to achieve complete protection from social media gaffes and the negative consequences that may follow.

But VIPs (who delegate social media), organizations and brands can take meaningful steps short of “lock downs” to reduce the odds that social media disasters will take place. First and foremost is the development and deployment of sensible social media policies that are transmitted throughout the organization.  Regardless of the size of your company, you probably need some kind of social media policy.

While every organization’s social media policy will be unique, they all will likely share the following common-sense rules:

  1. If the employee is posting on behalf of the company, company affiliation and real name must be used.Conversely, if the posting is not being made on behalf of the company, a disclaimer must accompany the posting.
  2. “Dishonorable” behavior will not be tolerated.While the term “dishonorable” is very broad, it generally means engaging in racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, or other slurs against a group, or competitor.
  3. Think before you post.As the Social Media policy of Ball State University notes, “Privacy does not exist in the world of social media. Consider what could happen if a post becomes widely known and how that may reflect both on the poster and the university. Search engines can turn up posts years after they are created, and comments can be forwarded or copied. If you wouldn’t say it at a conference or to a member of the media, consider whether you should post it online.”
  4. Copyrights must be respected.
  5. Trade secrets, proprietary information, and other internal company data should never be divulged on social media (or elsewhere).

Of course, no two organizations are exactly alike, and each is free to design social media policies that dovetail with their own unique cultures, industry verticals, and sensitivity to public relations issues.

Entities in the public sector – for example police agencies — may feel it necessary to have very restrictive policies governing what their employees can and cannot do. Others – for example those in the private media space – may have polices that are comparatively liberal, putting the onus on their employees to exercise “good taste” and “refrain from flame wars.”

But there’s no question that having a social media policy will, by helping to “get everyone on the same page” in terms of understanding what is – and is not – permitted on social media will  materially reduce the chance of errors, misunderstandings, lawsuits, and other serious consequences tarnishing your brand from materializing.

Learning from prior mistakes
The good news is that developing a sensible, workable, and fair social media policy isn’t rocket science. There are plenty of companies who’ve deployed them in the past several years, so many in fact that a website called the Social Media Policy Database has compiled a list of them, segmented by industry.

Read up on what these policies call for. Use them as templates when designing your own social media policy.  Learn from companies who’ve thought long and hard about the issue.

You’ll never be 100% safe from a high-profile social media meltdown caused by a rogue executive, employee, partner, or other entity doing business with your company. But a social media policy can provide a powerful bulwark against the worst happening. Which is why you should have one in place — right now for yourself, and your company.

Kevin Lee is co-founder and executive chairman of Didit a leading digital marketing and technology firm. Didit started in SEO technology in 1996 and then PPC search, however, over the last 5 years Didit has made 11 acquisitions to transform itself into a full service marketing firm while retaining technology at the core.