The admission by Congressman Anthony Weiner that he had a series of inappropriate internet relationships has dominated the news. People can never get enough of the classic Shakespearean tragedy that chronicles the timeless interplay of power, hubris, and lust and results in an unmasking. There are certainly a host of personal lessons to be learned regarding relationships, ethics, reputation and self-restraint. But what can enterprises learn from these events? Will this affair do to social media what the recent Amazon outage did to cloud computing? That is, will it cause enterprises to hold off on plans to implement social media?
Typically, large firms have two basic concerns regarding social media; that it will be a productivity drain and that it will cause legal or reputational issues. Both of these issues existed well prior to the ascent of Web 2.0 technologies. The introduction of the phone to office workers was originally met with concerns that it would lead to goofing off. Employees could always commit crimes and engage in other types of anti-social behavior that would reflect poorly on their employer. Subsequent introductions of technology prior to social media continued to provide opportunities for employee misbehavior. This started with voice mail, moved on to email, and then involved the use of the internet for basic website browsing.
Looking back on these technologies, most firms would find that they have a net positive effect on their organization. In fact, virtually no firm could survive without these technologies. They would be viewed as archaic by customers and employees. It is true, however, that as each of these technologies was implemented, there were some initial bumps in the road. Some team members, exploring these new capabilities, used them inappropriately, causing hardship for their organization.
The current issues at play in the Rep. Wiener scandal are conceptually similar to the risks that firms faced with previous communications technologies. The difference is that social media allows for a dramatically faster and wider spread of the effects of bad behaviors. Enterprises are left in a precarious position. Halting existing social media programs, or not starting new ones, is not a good formula for success. The time is fast approaching when not having a strong social media program will be like telling your customers and employees that you don’t have a website.
The answer for firms is to get out ahead of this storm and to implement the controls that are now standard in the email world. All firms that use or are considering using social media, should do the following:
- Make sure there is a “tone from the top” that supports the use of social media but holds people responsible for ethical behavior
- Establish a cross functional team of traditional control groups (e.g. HR, Legal) and business teams (e.g. Marketing) to create acceptable use policies and practices
- Establish a training program to socialize these acceptable use standards
- Make sure employees understand that any digital communication that leaves their control can have an infinite lifespan and massive distribution
- A nice model when thinking about the appropriateness of digital communication is the “New York Times test” – Would you want this email/post/comment to wind up on the front page of the New York Times?
- Stop worrying about productivity – Start managing by results, without worrying about how people spend each second of their day
- Accept that there will be a some mistakes – Deal with them as you would any other employee relations issue
- Update your crisis management programs to include issues involving the misuse of social media
Implementing these controls will allow firms to take advantage of the massive benefits of social media in a responsible and manageable fashion.