The Business Risks of Social Media


SafetyToday’s business environment carries with it all sorts of new risks, risks that did not exist just a few years ago. Even the line where business begins and ends are no longer clear. Business no longer ends at the end of the “business day”. At the same time, we all use social media in our own time, to talk about the rest of our lives. Can we make public statements about our private lives without impacting our work lives? Has social media killed the idea of employees every being “private citizens?”

If you are a banker or a lawyer, your day job may require strict confidentiality for client data, regardless of the time of day. When you work with confidential data, are you ever a private citizen? Are you allowed to Tweet about non-confidential items of your work life? Which updates are appropriate for Facebook, and what is the official language we use when we talk about this semi-private life? Are pictures for Instagram or Pintrest… that have no nudity, profanity, racial, or other objectionable content… always OK?

What could be wrong about posting a picture of you with friends, or perhaps a celebration of a birthday or wedding? Hmmm… do those pictures show you drinking? What if something goes wrong with a business deal, not when you were partying with your friends, but the next day? Could a lack of sleep or the possibility of a hangover become a discussion with an angry client? Suddenly, those pictures may not be so innocent!

Let’s look at a real case. Imagine a man in his 50’s, who lives in Europe, and likes to drive fast. He loves driving as fast as he can, as often as he can. That seems perfectly innocent! After all, Europe makes the fastest cars and motorcycles in the world. Guys in their 50s keep these industries alive! Lets stretch our imagination a bit further, and make our speed addict a government worker! Still no smoking gun? Well, what if it isn’t a car. What if our driver operates a train? He loves speed so much that talks to his friends about it, and he posts his speed fantasies on Facebook. He even posts a picture of his train’s speedometer hitting 200Kph (over 120mph).

This is all real. On July 24th, 2013 the Santiago de Compostela rail disaster happened, killing 79 passengers. Not only has social media become evidence for the trials and lawsuits to come, but yet another precedent has been set about using social media as evidence.  These postings may not determine the innocence or guilt of the driver, but they will certainly impact the Spanish Government’s financial liability for the case. Has your legal department started thinking about potential lawsuits if there is an accident or injury to a passenger?

This case also raises questions about government responsibility for monitoring social media. Edward Snowden, Wikileaks and other media stories tell us that the US and other governments spend a phenomenal amount of money to track our national enemies, because of the potential damage they could do. But we don’t track (at least our government tells us that they don’t track) the communications of workers that have the opportunity to create massive damage or death. We know that the tools to identify these threats exist, that’s how we are able to sift the Internet to find potential military and political threats. Without doubt, inappropriate social media content will be a growing part of court trials.

Imagine if we had Facebook or Twitter during the 80s and 90s when we had all of the post office killings (even i n 2006, there were three post office killing sprees). What are the chances that these very unhappy workers would have posted a hint of their future intentions? If the NSA can check through our phone records, should the government examine social media and be aware that it’s workers are in a suicidal mood? 

The train driver in Spain left comments on Facebook about how much he likes to travel over the speed limit and even how he wanted to break the rules and get fined. His Facebook page is now blocked, so we can no longer see his posts, but according UK’s Guardian newspaper, he previously posted, “What a blast it would be to (trigger) the radar. Haha what a fine…”.  All written as a private citizen, in his private time.

Large corporation often have (and enforce) rules about how and when you can talk to the media. It is often a comprehensive statement that you need prior authorization before you can talk to the media about virtually anything. That might have worked 20 years ago, when there was a very defined group of people and corporations that were “the media.” And most employees did not normally speak with the media, so there was both an awareness and a certain fear about talking to the official media.

If you were a higher level worker with access to more important data (lawyer, accountant, consultant) it was part of the job to understand issues of confidentiality. But when the issue is only partially related to work or is about an employee in a non-confidential role, it’s more difficult to make blanket statements about what can and cannot be communicated. Some communication policies that might be made in a corporation might easily be refuted by a government union lawyer. These restrictions might easily violate a worker’s constitutional rights, in the US and in many other countries.

Facebook and other social media are a form of “personal” communication, even if the communication is sent to thousands of followers. It is possible for an employer to issue a blanket rule, such as, “No employee shall interview with a newspaper or news broadcast without prior approval from the public relations department.” However, creating a moratorium on social media is quite another matter. In the past you could say, “Don’t talk to the Media!”, but what if you are the media? You are your own reporter on Facebook and Twitter. You have a right to free speech, at least when you are speaking on your own time. Employers that try to control the speech of their employees can expect years of lawsuits, legal actions and horrendous public press.

What is a corporate manager to do? You can start by talking to your HR department and asking for instruction and training for this new area of management risk. The train driver may say what he wants on Facebook, but the Spanish government should be able to require prior approval for posting pictures of government property (the speedometer). More importantly, the Spanish government should have clear rules (and training) about train drivers who text or taking photos when they are driving at 200 kph.

Workers need more than a dry recitation of rules, they need to learn new ways of thinking, and a continuous training program. New social media with new functions are constantly rolled out. Even in the largest firms lack the skills needed to develop an effective, ongoing training program for social media. Corporations need to accept that this is a special are of knowledge, and a corporate training department will never be able to keep pace work with the ongoing social and technological changes. You need to find the right consultant or outsourcing partner.

Likewise, corporations need to actively monitor social media. Corporations need reports on how your firm is discussed in social media, and which influencers affect your brand. In the past, internal advertising or marketing departments monitored major press released and articles that mentioned your firm. Do you have a similar program for tracking bloggers and social media? What types of software do you use to scan the Internet? A list of “top blogs” is of little use, since the list changes daily. Still, some blogs, videos and social media content have more followers (at least in that moment) than traditional print or broadcast media. If your firm does monitor the media in any way, how is this spend divided between traditional and social media?

It’s a new century and we all need to work differently. You used to be able to tell workers, “Don’t talk t repoerters”, and you covered everything you needed for the average worker. Now workers ARE the media, and the rules have changed. You don’t have the same ability to control what they say to their followers, and  there are too many points of communication for you to effectively find out what your workers are saying to the world. You need to work with competent consultants who can design a social media policy and a method of effectively monitoring employee activity. If you don’t, you can be sure that everything you miss, will be brought up in court when the next major fiasco hits your firm!

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