Kristen Ruby was taking her client, the head of sales and marketing for a New York-based landscape company, on a tour of its recently created Facebook fan page. While showing the executive various employees who were becoming fans of the Facebook page, Ruby landed on the headshot of an employee smoking what looked like marijuana. The executive was startled and embarrassed, but Ruby, a consultant who helps companies use social media to market themselves, wasn’t all that surprised.
“This is a perfect example of what happens when employees use Facebook without understanding how public it really is, or realizing the consequences of their actions in social media,” says Ruby, president of Ruby Media Group. “That picture was potentially being seen by all the customers who checked out the company Facebook. If you are going to join your company’s fan page, the professionalism of your headshot counts, since you are associating yourself with your company’s brand.”
Small businesses and their employees are embracing social media sites, such as Facebook, at record speeds. This requires every company to consider how to protect themselves from the perils of public posts gone bad.
According to the most recent survey from FaceTime Communications, which advises companies on security and compliance issues across social media platforms, 95 percent of employees use social media on the job (up 14 percent from the 2008 survey), with 79 percent using social media for business and 81 percent for personal reasons. Among the top social media sites, Facebook is used at work by 36 percent of employees and at home by 93 percent.
And while personal use of Facebook may be most common, small businesses have made their own missteps when it comes to corporate Facebook fan pages. Ruby recounts one client, a retailer in New York, who set up a Facebook fan page and then didn’t look at it for several months. As it turned out, a customer had written something negative about the company on the fan page, and then other customers had started weighing in — in agreement. “By the time the company got around to looking at its fan page, the damage was done and they needed to go in and clean up the mess,” says Ruby. The moral of the story? A Facebook fan page has to be regularly monitored, and the company needs to interact with the comments customers leave on it.
Dianna Sheppard, president of Advantec, an HR services firm, cautions that small business owners need to think of any Facebook activity, in-house or employee-owned, as an extension of their brand. “As with all things involving your brand, you need to control it,” says Sheppard. “Facebook can be even more damaging than negative traditional press, because it can go viral with record speed.”
In fact, all it takes is one employee with a video camera and an “it seemed funny at the time” idea. Sheppard tells of one employee at an upscale restaurant located in southwest Florida who videotaped a prank (involving cooked animal parts) played on the restaurant’s chef. The employee then posted the video on YouTube and pointed to it from his Facebook page. Unfortunately, the name of the restaurant was clearly visible in the video and the video went viral almost immediately. Says Sheppard, “Within a week, everyone in the city was talking about it. Customers would come into the restaurant and ask if the chef involved in the prank was working that night.”
As a result, Sheppard’s company was called in to rewrite the employee handbook and the employment agreements to reflect the new rules necessary in a wired world. “We basically had to create a policy that employees were not allowed to put the company’s image or name into any public media, including their private social media sites such as Facebook,” says Sheppard.
Ruby and Sheppard both agree that, in the end, promoting, maintaining, and protecting a company’s brand are the bottom line, and the best way to do that is by crafting a clear and concise social media policy.
Renee Brown, chief executive officer of C.W. Brown, a construction management services company located in Armonk, New York, says that as her company started to grow, it became apparent that it needed to embrace social media and create a policy to manage it.
“Originally, we blocked Facebook from our office,” says Brown. “But as a part of our goal to achieve LEED green certification and to attract a younger generation of employees, we needed to utilize social media.” Brown says that in order to ensure that Facebook was a useful tool and not a problematic distraction, she worked with an outside consultant to create a very specific social media policy and trained all staff in the best practices for how to use it. Some highlights from the policy that may be helpful are below.
- While employees can reply to comments left on Facebook, anything they officially want to post about the company on Facebook or other social media must go through marketing first.
- Encourage employees to become a fan of the Facebook fan page.
- Encourage people to post construction topics related to industry and green best practices.
- Verify the information they post is accurate because it’s representing the company — this includes comments on the Facebook fan page.
- Keep personal and corporate separate.
- Stick with a 30-minute time limit at work for Facebook or any other social media sites.
So far, Brown says the policy is working. “We are still pretty new at this and still evaluating it,” she says. “We want to be open to all of it, but the jury is still out on what the benefits are for us overall.”
One thing the jury is not out on is that social media is here to stay. Every small business will eventually find itself in the position of having to integrate a tool such as Facebook into its marketing mix. Whether these turn out to be a boon or a bust largely depends on how well the medium is managed and what content a business ultimately allows and doesn’t allow to be posted. But in any case, for everyone’s sake, post a headshot that shows your professional, rather than your recreational, side.
Karen Leland is the best-selling author of six books and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Woman’s Day, Self, and Entrepreneur magazine.