There are good reasons for using social networks. But like any other form of communication, social networks must be used with care. It’s not that they pose a new legal risk, but rather that they pose old risk in a new way.
The portability of electronic devices, for example, allows social networks to be accessed from virtually anywhere at anytime. Jurors, for example, are increasingly bringing technology into the courtroom and using it to tweet about ongoing trials. It is threatening the impartiality of jurors and resulting in more mistrials than ever before. Apparently, some people mistake the ability to access the Internet with the express permission to do so. They blur the line of appropriateness.
The speed with which errors in judgment can be magnified and negatively impact a business was also demonstrated by the Domino’s Pizza this past April. Two jokers working at a Conover, NC store thought it would be funny to make a narrated video, graphically showing unsanitary sandwich preparation. They loaded it on YouTube and with the help of Twitter and assorted bloggers drew enough attention to their escapade to gross out more than a million viewers.
The company acted swiftly and terminated the hapless pair who were then charged with a felony for delivering prohibited foods (even though they claim the sandwiches were never delivered – it was a joke remember). Nonetheless, YouGov, a research firm that surveys consumers daily about brands, found that consumer perceptions of Domino’s were affected by the incident within a few short days. They had a mini-crisis on their hands.
While it was to the company’s credit that it acted swiftly in terminating the feckless employees and pressing legal charges, it was not as quick to communicate that message in the social media that created the buzz in the first place. As a result it left too many people a twitter about “What’s Domino’s doing about all this.”
The buzz created by social networks not only sends the message fast, it also sends the message far and wide, increasing visibility and drawing attention to events that were previously largely unnoticed.
Take for example, Procter & Gamble’s obscure tax ruling in the U.K. about whether Pringles are potato chips. The ruling was significant from a tax perspective because if Pringles are potato chips they’re subject to a 15% value-added tax (VAT). A favorable ruling was worth millions to P&G and it therefore argued with gusto that the VAT should not apply because potatoes account for less than half of the ingredients in Pringles, only 42% to be exact.
The tax authorities disagreed. Their May 20th ruling reportedly became the butt of jokes and gained notoriety on social media within hours. Ironically, the case garnered much less attention a year ago when P&G won its argument at the lower court. But, social networking was less dominant then.
In sum, since social networks are here to stay it’s smart to develop strategies and contingency plans for managing the public relations fall out that can result from the new level of transparency.