“The views are my own and don't reflect those of my employer." is not a bulletproof statement. The views of the employee might not be those of the organization, but the employee is part of the organization, and what is said in social media reflects directly back on the organization.
Bulletproof vests are a bit of an oxymoron because they are bullet-resistant and meant to prevent penetration by specific types, sizes, and speeds of bullets. They don't stop all bullets, as the name might imply. In that way, they are much like the typical social media disclaimer many organizations encourage employees to use: “The views are my own and don't reflect those of my employer." You see, the views of the employee might not be those of the organization, but the employee is part of the organization, and what is said in social media reflects directly back on the organization.
Consider the latest “oopsie” moment by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, who this week prompted a significant backlash in China. Morey's momentary lapse in judgment resulted in his tweet "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong." It might have seemed innocuous enough, and an appropriate statement to make in the U.S. The problem is that it was anything but proper with regards to China, and showed vast ignorance of the politically sensitive environment that the N.B.A. had successfully navigated up to this point. Moorey deleted the tweet and claimed that the insulting statement was his views alone and did not represent those of the N.B.A. The N.B.A. issued a statement indicating the incident was "regrettable." But none of that mattered as the damage was done. Like a strong bullet traveling at breakneck speed, the regrettable tweet was no match for the disclaimer bulletproof vest; it just didn’t hold up.
This latest social media blunder is just that: the latest social media blunder. It highlights the inability of any organization to hide behind the statement that an employee’s views do not represent those of the employer. So what should you do instead?
- Recognize that not all social media posters are equal. Moorey’s statement caused an incredible uproar in China, partially because of Moorey’s seniority and visibility within the N.B.A. world. If an N.B.A. locker room attendant posted the same sentiment on Twitter, the world might have never noticed nor cared. Sometimes who posts a message is more important than the message itself. And that means that every organization needs to pay special attention and provide specialized social media training to executives, officers, and high-visibility personnel within and surrounding the organization.
- Show, tell, and then show some more. Social media is not native to most individuals above the age of 29. And no dry policy can convey everything that those without social media knowledge need to understand. Rather than telling employees to "use common sense," focus on educating and training your workforce on how to appropriately use social media. This includes executives and those in leadership positions. After all, your talented employees might be able to produce a 10K like it is nobody's business or closes the latest merger. Still, if they don’t understand the nuances of Instagram versus Twitter, they can't get it right. The more that employees at all levels are trained to use social media, the better changes your organization has to benefit from their abilities while limiting those “oopsie” moments.
- Accept that disclaimers and social media policies only protect the organization from legal risk. While your organization might benefit from legal protection in the form of having a social media policy that depicts acceptable and prohibited online behavior, it will do you no good in the court of peoples’ perception. Once a faux pas is made, there is no social media that can help you undo it. Your best bet is to be clear on precisely what is acceptable behavior from a professional perspective and be specific about which opinions should be kept away from anything (or anyone!) that is brand-related.
- Keep that social media emergency plan handy. Emergencies are just that – emergencies. Nobody knows when they will occur, nor what form they will take. But the more you plan for an emergency and practice emergency scenarios, the better prepared you will be when one occurs. Make sure you create a social media emergency plan and run through it regularly. Review what is happening with other organizations, how they are responding to issues, and incorporate those lessons learned into your program. It can make the difference between containment and full-on disaster.
If there is one wish I have, it is that every organization will use this latest Twitter mishap to understand that social media disasters are just one statement away. This is the time to reflect on your social media policy and practices and close the gaps. While there is no bulletproof vest (nor bulletproof social media policy), you can protect yourself by understanding the kind of bullets coming your way and slowing them down.
Photo by Nik Shuliahin