You guys I'm like really smart now. You don't even know. You could ask me, Kelly what's the biggest company in the world? And I'd be like, "blah blah blah, blah blah blah blah blah blah." Giving you the exact right answer.

-Kelly Kapoor
The Office

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Social Media and Business Continuity

   Social media resources such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs provide opportunities to market company services, shape brand identity, gather customer feedback, and even facilitate a disaster response. On the other hand, failure to establish a presence and a strategy to leverage these tools provides competitors and detractors opportunities to use them in order to define the company as they see fit, causing damage to the company’s reputation and potentially compounding the impact of a disaster.  Creation of an effective social media strategy will mitigate this risk, promote the company to targeted audiences, and establish a network that can facilitate disaster response and recovery efforts.

Social Media Risks

   The absence of a social media strategy poses a significant risk to a company’s reputation. In a recent survey by Deloitte, 74% of employees responding said they could easily damage a company’s reputation by using social media.[1] The forum provided by social media could allow employees who blog or post concerning the company to publicly express negative views about the company. In addition, they may express controversial opinions or post rude or objectionable content, which could cause a company to be guilty by association. Employees can also divulge company confidential information online, such as new business ventures or challenges facing the company and the names of customers and partners. Furthermore, social networking sites are increasingly being used by cybercriminals to gain confidential access from users.[2]

Addressing the Risks

      While the above challenges have caused some companies to simply ban access to social media sites from the workplace[3], a more effective strategy involves education and the establishment of clear guidelines for employees. Concealing one’s identity on a social networking site is as simple as creation of a separate user account and restricting access from the corporate network will not prevent employees from participating via personal, hand-held devices or their home computer. As such, employees need to be encouraged to embrace the spirit of the company guidelines, not the law. Effective guidelines, in other words, encourage employees to behave in a positive manner while using social media by showing them why prudent online behavior is in their best interest. For example:
Microsoft has a bone-simple blogging policy. Be smart. We ask the same of you.
 Please be smart in your online activities. They reflect on both you and the agency.
The ability to publish things that may never go away and can be forwarded endlessly,
 well, it gives us pause and we hope it does you, too.[4]

These guidelines often provide a resource where employees can go for clarification on the acceptable use of social media, such as their manager and/or the company code of conduct.[5] Limitations imposed on employees often require that they separate their personal and corporate identities online. This can include a disclaimer in a blog post that the opinions expressed are personal in nature and not those of the company. In addition, companies often set limits on what employees cannot reveal about the company through social media, such as impending business plans, or names of customers or business partners.[6]
     Another important component of a social media strategy is training.  This training should reinforce the company guidelines as well as address protection of privacy and personal information. One company, for example, included a section in their policy forbidding the use of location-based social networking tools during customer visits, which could be used by competitors to track their salespeople.[7]

Reaping the Benefits  

   An effective social media strategy not only mitigates the risk through policy and guidelines, but maximizes the benefits of a company’s social media usage. Forrester Research recommends the use of the POST method to develop this strategy. This is short for People, Objectives, Strategy and Technology, and identifies the series of decisions that a company should make in composing its strategy. [8]
   The first consideration an organization should have is the people or target audience. Before anything else, the company needs to understand what social networking tools its audience uses in order to be able to reach them.[9]
   After identifying the audience, the strategy needs to clearly define the objectives it intends to accomplish.[10]  These might include gathering customer feedback on new product offerings or marketing enhancements to current services.
   Strategy, as defined in this method, is the process of understanding how the use of social media will change relationships with the target audience and planning the steps to make it happen.[11] This involves anticipating the response of the target audience and planning for it.
   The final phase in this method involves selecting one or more types of social media technology to reach the target audience and meet the objectives.  The method emphasizes that selecting a platform first is a common pitfall, which can limit effectiveness by failing to reach the target audience or by being incompatible with the company’s objectives.[12]

Business Continuity and Social Media

   A social media strategy needs to go beyond mitigating the risks posed by this technology; instead it should leverage it to improve company resilience.  On the most basic level, social media provides a means of notifying a large group of people during a crisis, including the surrounding community, company employees, customers and members of the media.   FEMA, the CDC and many groups of first responders have embraced Twitter for this reason.[13]  
   Beyond the ability to help coordinate a response, social media resources also provide access to a vast network of information and assistance during a disaster. For example, less than two hours after the Virginia Tech shootings, a Facebook page called ‘I’m OK at VT’ appeared and allowed those at the university to confirm they were unharmed.[14]  In addition, as Hurricane Gustav approached the Gulf Coast, a web forum was created on the “Ning” social network that helped coordinate volunteer assistance for the area.[15] Decentralized, organic responses of help like these are common during disasters, and organizations that are able to take advantage of them have a distinct advantage in their response and recovery efforts.[16]
   Tapping into social networks can also alert a company to “creeping crises” and provide a means to respond to them. Being engaged in the same social media networks as customers, employees and business partners provides an organization access to real-time feedback[17] on these events, which can be used to take action before the situation escalates. A social media presence also will gradually build followers or contacts who can provide support or information in an online, public-relations crisis.[18]
   The absence of a social media strategy is both a reputational risk and a missed opportunity. A strategy that incorporates clear guidelines and training for employees will significantly mitigate the risk this new technology poses. Basing this strategy on a specific technology platform that is used by target audiences and that facilitates its objectives can significantly enhance the company’s reputation. In addition, it can provide much needed access to volunteers and other sources of information when responding to a business interruption, disaster or public relations crisis.      

[1] Leonard, Matt; Search Engine Journal (2009)
[2] Bradley, Tony; “Networkworld” (2010)
[3] Bradley, Tony; Networkworld (2010)
[4] Greteman Group;  Social Media Policy (2009)
[5] Ibid.
[6] Cisco; Cisco Internet Postings Policy (2008)
[7] IBM; IBM Social Computing Guidelines (2010)
[8] Bernoff, Josh; Empowered (2007)
[9] Ibid.
[10] Bernoff, Josh;  Empowered (2007)
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Collins, Hilton; Emergency Managers and First Responders Use Twitter and Facebook to Update Communities (2009)
[14] Orlando, John;  “Continuity Insights” (2010)
[15] Lewin, Elisabeth; Hurricane Gustav Spurs Volunteers, Relief Via Social Media (2008)
[16] Orlando, John;  “Continuity Insights” (2010)
[17] Kenton, Chris; Crisis Management Essentials for Social Media (2009)
[18] Ibid.

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