Social media has revolutionised communications for businesses, and few have benefited more than small firms. The likes of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn help SMEs reach new customers quickly, easily – and, vitally, for free. More than half of UK small businesses already use social media, according to insurer Hiscox, and that number continues to grow as more companies get to grips with new technology.
But the brave new virtual world does carry some risks. Businesses are learning the hard way that Tweets, Instagram images, and blogs on Tumblr, if mishandled, can cause great embarrassment, or even lead to serious reputational damage. Retailer HMV found itself the subject of much derision last year when the person responsible for its official Twitter feed live-tweeted the sacking of 60 of the high street chain’s employees. The messages pre-empted the administrator Deloitte’s redundancy announcement, with HMV’s head office only wresting control of the account once the bad news was all over the Twittersphere.
If even the biggest firms can get social media so wrong, small enterprises should take heed. Many SME owners want to exploit social media, but hand responsibility to a younger member of staff without giving them any guidance or restraint over what to say or do. Neither do they retain adequate control over social media accounts.
Kate Atkin, a solicitor who specialises in technology, intellectual property, and marketing at London-based law firm M Law, points out that businesses can reap great benefits from social media, but must be careful of what’s said in their name. She explains:
“From a business perspective, things like Twitter are an incredibly easy and cheap way to engage with customers, but it is the Wild West out there and it’s essential to have control mechanisms in place to rein things in if and when required.”
But what are the basic lessons in social media that business owners need to know?
Who owns what?
If an employee sets up a Twitter or LinkedIn account on behalf of a business and builds up a following, you must establish who owns the account, the information posted, and the followers accrued. This point has emerged in several employment tribunals, where a member of staff leaves a business only to insist that the virtual data contained in the company’s social media accounts is in the worker’s name, and, therefore, belongs to them. Business owners should also keep a record of the passwords of any social media sites used in the company’s name, so that they can gain access quickly if an employee goes rogue, sends out inappropriate information accidentally, or is sick when a crisis hits. Further still, if the information that is built up through your social media presence has some value to the business, keep a record of it elsewhere, say, by keeping screen shots of content posted. Ultimately, it’s not Twitter’s responsibility to maintain data in the cloud for you, so you must back-up anything you want to keep. And it’s wise to read social media sites’ terms and conditions to ascertain ownership of content. Instagram caused a storm when it announced a change to its user policies allowing it to sell on images posted on its site. It was forced to back-pedal on the controversial decision, but current changes to UK copyright law threaten similar moves on the part of social media publishers. Always read the small print to determine your position, then decide what to share online.
Create a social media policy
This should at the heart of any company’s social media use, be it via Twitter, Google+, YouTube or any other medium. Firms should explicitly state in a formal document what is and isn’t acceptable employee behaviour on social media. Some of these cautions may apply as much to the material world as the virtual one, but it doesn’t hurt to remind staff that their actions on social sites have the same implications as those in reality. Make it plain that existing policies about disclosing confidential information or trade secrets, and any guidelines relating to discrimination or harassment are applicable to social media use. Put provisions into your policy to allow the business owner to take control of accounts if necessary. Atkin emphasises that some members of staff may need educating in what it is and isn’t appropriate to discuss online. “There needs to be a clear delineation between business activities that are appropriate to share and those that shouldn’t be in the public domain. Employees need to be aware they’re representing the company, not themselves.” She also advises that written policies cover how staff manage their personal social media accounts to avoid offensive comments made in personal threads becoming public, forcing employers to take action.
On a simple level, good, old-fashioned common sense should be your guide when engaging with social media. If customers start to complain about your business on Twitter, for example, then try to move the conversation offline and away from the public sphere as soon as possible. Much of a company’s approach will be determined by the tone of voice that it adopts, and this should be carefully considered. If yours is a young, energetic brand, a more casual, conversational tone may be appropriate. If the business is a more sober entity, then a more formal voice and approach is probably better. Atkin advises business owners to think long and hard about how they need to talk to through these revolutionary new channels. “The employer has to decide who they want to engage in social media on behalf of the business, and how many. If it’s a free for all and you opt to allow many or all of your staff to speak via social channels, then you need greater controls over social media and give staff proper training.”
Atkin recommends that SMEs allocate funds to ensure that the right message gets out.
“Social media is usually controlled by marketers,” she says. “Make sure that a small percentage of their marketing budget goes towards putting the necessary controls in place to ensure safe and responsible social media use. If a small business were to ask me if they should be using social media, I’d say absolutely. But strategise about what you want to say and how you say it, then make sure you put adequate control mechanisms in place so that you can be confident about your enterprise’s use of social media.”
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net