Manage your social media risks

Challenges employers face with regard to social media might not be what you think they are.

The growth of social media has led to huge changes in the field of communication, compliments of powerful technology and hyperconnectivity: Public participation in social media has been accompanied by unprecedented scope, reach and amazing levels of immediacy and permanence of the content. All these features – and potential benefits – have been amplified by increasing scales of usability. As a result, social media has quickly moved from predominantly personal, individual use to use by organisations as well.

The primary challenge for organisations is not, as some assume, whether or not to allow employees access to social media during working hours or on workplace resources – not least because access via their cell phones makes the use of company resources largely irrelevant. Instead, the workplace challenge that warrants attention is achieving the appropriate and ethical use of social media by employees and avoiding the many risks emanating from unethical online conduct.

The primary and overarching ethical issue that this raises stems from the enormous power this communication medium confers on its users. Whereas in the past, communication that realised equivalent degrees of influence and reach was limited to powerful governments, large organisations or extremely important individuals, today that power vests in the hands of ordinary individuals. And, when those individuals lack ethics, the potential for far reaching ethical breaches is huge.

This risk is characterised by two pertinent issues. Firstly, social media within an organisation can serve the dual purpose of an employee benefit and a business tool. The latter can deliver significant business value, for example, by providing a targeted audience for legal, direct marketing and by enabling the company to better understand its customers and to build its brand and brand loyalty. Secondly, it is often not the company that has established a social media account, but rather employees of those businesses who tweet or post on behalf of the business. This juxtaposition of the individual and the organisation raises a number of ethical issues pertinent to social media.

One such risk relates to who owns these social media accounts and the goodwill they encompass. Spoor & Fischer’s Point publication mentions the example of Laura Kuenssberg, a BBC political correspondent who tweeted on behalf of the BBC via her Twitter handle, @BBCLauraK. However, when she left the BBC to join ITV, her account was renamed @ITVLauraK and she took her 60,000 followers with her. Had this been a traditional client list, it would have been considered theft – but social media lacks this clarity. Therefore, for organisations that utilise social media for business purposes, the question of ownership needs to be clearly addressed.

Another factor that affects social media is the reality that, because values are often different for different people, organisations are likely to encounter a spectrum of employee values that can range from perfect to appalling. While it is the leader’s role to align the employees’ values behind the values of the organisation, this is generally focused on the application of values in the workplace or the scope of business. However, employees’ private use of social media – especially senior employees’ use – can give rise to many circumstances that can cause damage to a company. This can include, for example, sharing confidential information, defaming a client or being unduly critical of the company. Added areas of company risk deriving from employee conduct include copyright and trade mark infringements and possible vicarious liability for discrimination and harassment.

Another factor deriving from merged individual and company use of social media is the potential for ethical dilemmas – most notably, it can place the individual’s right to privacy and freedom of expression in opposition to the company’s right to appropriately protect its interests. As such, where a company has IT systems in place to monitor possible breaches, the organisation must be conscious that this does not amount to an invasion of privacy.

These issues warrant a policy that does more than provide guidelines on the dos and don’ts for the use of social media or that clarifies who can and can’t act as a spokesperson for the company. The risk necessitates that a company’s policy extends to the appropriate and ethical use of personal social media accounts.

The law offers another mechanism to manage the ethical risks of social media. Although there is no legislation that explicitly deals with social media in South Africa, applicable legislation includes the Constitution, employment law, consumer protection law and intellectual property law. Legislation has already been effectively applied in this regard, such as in the CCMA where employees’ dismissals have been confirmed as a result of derogatory Facebook updates. However, a company’s pure reliance on the law to manage their social media (or any aspect of ethics) is not ideal – primarily because recourse to legal mechanisms is an after-the-fact event and, as such, reactive. An effective ethical management strategy should be inherently proactive and should incorporate a reactive arm only when necessary.

In this vein, organisations need to acknowledge the limitation of rules and rule-based mechanisms in the management of ethics, especially as a means of controlling the vast capability of social media. While legislation and company policies are essential, they are not sufficient to ensure ethical conduct. Broad based leadership is needed to build and maintain high levels of ethical awareness and to continually strive to build commitment to common values such as integrity and respect. Together these represent a much more sustainable way to facilitate the benefits and minimise the risks of social media.

Organisations also need to manage the social media risks that can arise from external sources. This warrants that someone who is familiar with social media channels is assigned to the role of monitoring stakeholder posts or tweets so that the company is equipped to respond appropriately. The key factor is speed: it allows companies to manage the situation better and to minimise the possible damage. Keeping a company’s social media networks safe from abuse by external parties, for example, from hacked or false social media identities, represents yet another area of focus for organisations.

What is encouraging is that keeping the social media space ethical does not rest with any one company. Online security is now considered a public good that necessitates a co-operative effort by all institutions. As acknowledged by the World Economic Forum in 2012, “maintaining a healthy digital space is needed to ensure stability in the world economy and balance of power.”

By Cynthia Schoeman
Posted on HR Future, January 2014