Monday, 27 February 2012

Communication, social media and crisis management

In the new world we live in, companies need a policy on social media. I can imagine the reader of that sentence looking aghast, thinking about the extra burdens already faced as a result of new legislation ranging from health and safety to employment and beyond. Social media too?

Social media is a part of our environment and also a new tool for us to use. In its first role we have to control the way our staff use it. We cannot have them publicly criticising the company or their line manager or bullying a work colleague through their Facebook page. Nor can we have trade secrets or new marketing initiatives betrayed through unrestricted chatter on online forums. Of course actions such as these are already covered by specific or implied terms in employment contracts so you can argue that nothing new needs to be done. Why is something written on a Facebook page any different from writing a letter to a newspaper when either would be a breach of discipline? I think the difference lies in the lower barriers to on-line action. It is so easy to say something rude about a colleague in an off-the-cuff comment on Twitter: you are typing a short message and add a few different keystrokes and hit send; and it has gone, irretrievably. On the other hand, getting out a sheet of paper and a pen and sitting down to write a letter takes that bit more effort and intent. It then requires the result to be folded and put in an envelope, a stamp put on and the final missive taken to a post box. Even at the last moment it requires a physical movement to post it which gives an instant to reconsider.

The ease of use of social media creates a case for giving staff simple, clear policies on what they may not do online. But we may not want to put everything out of bounds. A company may, for example, be quite happy for its software engineers to discuss a technical problem through an online forum and get a solution, as long as that does not mean giving away trade secrets. Good intent, however, is not enough on its own. If your company faces the misfortune of a serious accident or some other crisis you actually may not want your staff defending you online any more than you want them criticising you. It muddies the message and may have legal consequences.

Social media also provide tools to engage with customers and employees in the normal course of business. You can build loyalty, win repeat business or access your customers networks. Facebook provides the space for discussions, offers, news and competitions. It can be linked with Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn, Google+ and others. When Carnival Cruises sister company Costa Cruises suffered a disaster off the coast of Italy its Facebook and Twitter presence gave it a platform for expressing regret, concern and reassurance without saying anything that might give rise to legal repercussions. Yet they made a mistake; after five days the company announced a pause in its online communications, forgetting that online never pauses: it just continues without you. The next five days merely provided space for negativity to expand so that when it returned to communication mode its posts attracted hundreds of negative comments. A more sensible policy would have been to view this media as a communication and not an advertising platform. Once a company recognises the online environment as a channel for genuine and sincere communication it is obvious that you cannot tune out for a bit. You don’t turn to a friend and say, “I don’t want to talk to you for a few days, I have stuff to do.” So companies must ask themselves what they want to achieve from these channels and understand their side of that bargain before setting out on this journey. As I said at the beginning, companies need a policy on social media. Online is out there with or without you and it makes sense to think through how to use it and how not to use it and to express that clearly to your staff.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Corporate social responsibility or corporate performance?

In the Sunday Times today (unfortunately hidden behind a paywall) Dominic Lawson points out that Fred Goodwin, former head of RBS, was chairman of the Princes Trust and his company had extensive corporate social responsibility programmes; yet was that what society needed or did it need better business decisions? Of course there is a legitimate argument that good management and good corporate social responsibility are not mutually exclusive choices. I do think that genuine commitment to and success in each leads to success in the other: the attitudes of respect for colleagues and commitment to motivate people to achieve will lead to management success but will also lead to an attitude that is supportive of social responsibility. The problem arises when social responsibility programmes are used as a smokescreen to hide the blemishes on the company's face.

Good corporate social responsibility is a result of a sincere intent to engage with staff. One of the things that motivates staff is proven to be a sense that their employer cares about them and cares about the wider society. This also means listening to staff and being responsive to them and thinking about the consequences of your actions. So BP may have been active in promoting its involvement in green causes but its board must have been aware years before the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that there was criticism of the company's cost cutting culture and suggestions that it could compromise safety. If I read that in the press years ago then board members must have done so too. Did they not see some disconnect there? Good business management and good corporate social responsibility would have led to the same conclusion, that a cost-cutting culture was inappropriate and inimical to a safety-culture.