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Social Networking – Everyone is Doing It Opportunities and Threats for Business and Organizations

Websites, social media and social marketing provide organizations an expansive new way to communicate with their members, customers, prospective customers and staff. Social marketing platforms provide a variety of tools to share immediate information, photos, videos and comments at the touch of a keypad or mobile phone. This access to 24/7 communications is perhaps today’s best proactive sales and marketing tool but can also be a reactive nightmare for organizational leaders.

The Pew Research Center noted in a 2012 study “that internet users under 50 are likely to use social networking, and those 18-29 are the most likely of any demographic…at 83% of market. 30-49 year olds are 77% of users and 52% of 50 -64 year olds. Social networking use among internet users ages 50 and older nearly doubled—from 22% in April 2009 to 42% in May 2010”.

No company or organization looking to do business or build membership can do so without a website and would be severely handicapped without a social marketing platform. Organizations as diverse as for-profit sales organizations, political action groups, non-profit service agencies, school districts, government and various public agencies, among others, are using social media and marketing to connect with their customers and constituents.

An organization’s website is the foundation from which the social media and marketing effort begins and is the incoming platform for all social communications. Daily or weekly uploads of content such as stories, event photos, new programming, links to news items of interest, calendar of events, product and service information, contact information, and blogs all should be included in a dynamic and robust communications program, and increases ones visibility through access to search engines. The information uploaded to one’s website is the basis for that which should be released, in a greatly reduced word count, across social marketing platforms.

A website is a place to bring your audience in to learn in more detail about your products and services, and all outward communication is served best by linking back to this foundation. In a well-defined process of communication, defining, crafting and uploading content is usually completed by ones marketing team with internal controls in place for vetting prior to going live.

Platforms such Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Tumblr, Pinterest and other social networking outlets are how you reach out to your consumer, often in real time. Links on your website’s home page to outgoing communication platforms will increase your audience and reach. Through these channels an organization can develop ‘friends’, ‘contacts’, ‘fans’ and members to which immediate access can be obtained through mobile phones, texts, and emails. The true power of this communication comes when information posted on these platforms is ‘liked’, ‘linked’, ‘forwarded’ and ‘hash tagged’ by viewers and sent to their own pages, accounts, lists and friends. Drawing these new viewers to your organization with interesting and enticing content is how you build reach. In marketing one’s product, this distribution of information is a coveted tool, as it increases market awareness, elevates search engine rankings, and is also invaluable in case of the need for decisive reactive communications.

With a comprehensive social media and marketing network in place, an organization can flourish but one must remember the tools created for positive communications can also be used for negative communications, and anyone and everyone who uses social sites has control over content.

Most people that you come in contact with in business, or in your personal life, have social media accounts, camera phones, can text and post photos of their experiences, or things of interest to them, at a moment’s notice and reach hundreds, if not thousands, of people or more. Many avid users of social media spend hours a day posting more information than most of us desire to read. Often, these posts are personal information, may be about work or an activity, or propose a position on an issue or policy. For organizations, this immediate information/opinion distribution system can severely challenge a marketing department if, for example, one disgruntled consumer or staff member posts a negative comment about a business, product or negative experience. Cameras make it easy to visually document any moment and the nature of a still image can sometimes be misleading. Digital video with the moving and audio component is a powerful tool for capturing real events in real time. Coupled with the ease of one touch of a ‘send’ button to post, a seemingly private moment is widely public in an instant.

This access to public information streams by everyone, staff and consumers alike creates invaluable communication access to the market in times of positive information, but a quagmire of vulnerability for organizations in times of reactive information management.

One cannot control the freedoms of speech inherent in our constitution, and it is still early days in developing legislation to address freedom of speech in the digital world. Congress has not yet and may never be able to catch up with the quickly changing and evolving technologies that open our communications streams globally.

States are just beginning to establish their own legislation regarding social networking. In New Jersey, they recently passed a law that says employers or prospective employers may not request passwords to social media accounts. On the Social Networking Law Blog regarding federal regulations, it was stated, “Employers should understand how freak-fast this area of law really is developing. Just to illustrate the kind of rapid changes we’ve been seeing (and the interplay among the various kinds of documents): the General Counsel’s May 30, 2012 report discusses seven recent cases. On the same day that report was issued, an ALJ issued a decision in one of the cases discussed within the GC’s report. In other words, the May 30, 2012 GC guidance was at least arguably outdated on the very date it was issued!

These new technologies in the hands of the general population mean organizations must be aware that eyes and ears may be always watching, people are always talking and one has little true control of what is said. But action can be taken internally. Define rules for communication of all kinds in your organization and ensure that team members and staff are trained to be aware of their part in the organizations public relations and marketing campaign. Staff needs to be reminded that every participant in an organization is responsible for the public relations of that organization as if their job depends upon it. In this volatile global marketplace one’s job does depend upon the positive public perception of their company or organization. Appearance is even more powerful than reality in our 24/7 competitive marketplace. Strict communication rules and regulations must be in place across the organization regarding texting or posting sensitive or organization related information, images or video to one’s own social media account.

Take for example the recent news story about the posting by a certified nursing assistant in a senior nursing home who sent a very personal photo of an elderly resident to a friend. Once received, the ‘friend’ posted it to her Facebook page, where it was ‘liked’ and reposted by others. In minutes this unsuspecting elder was humiliated quite publicly to hundreds or thousands of people. The news media found the post and made it a story. The staff member was fired and lawsuits may be pending. In another case, two police officers were accused of conducting a Facebook conversation about a crime victim’s murder in an open investigation. Again, the media found it online, the family involved is charging slander, the organization and leadership is under scrutiny, the officer’s positions are under threat, and a campaign of reactive communications protocol is required.

Responding to the fallout of these types of postings is costly to an organization financially and administratively, with unbillable time expended on the crisis and a reduction organization’s credibility to their community and clients. Stories like this are happening across the country with far too much frequency. What must be evident in both of these cases is that if these actors truly realized the public nature of their discourse and the financial, legal if not moral ramifications of their actions, they may have thought twice before posting. At least that is the premise we must act on as organizational leaders.

People seem to be desensitized to the real world implications of the power of access to instant distribution of communication. It is also not yet deeply ingrained in our consciousness that once one’s thoughts, images, personal information or statements about others is released to the internet and social media stream, it is out there forever and is never anonymous. One can’t take a post back even if it’s deleted, or escape from the impending fallout. Computer signatures can be traced, accounts identified, actors found. Media outlets are especially good at tracking down stories found on social networking sites and reporters troll, friend and fish the internet today like they once worked a beat in the neighborhood. The law enforcement community trained to work in this field of information technology including cyber threats, slander, fraud, theft, terrorism, etc. is growing exponentially as this type of activity explodes, and the and the tools to find the actors responsible and laws to address it are quickly being developed. People must realize that with all of our new technologies available for communications in the modern era, the old adage from bygone days still applies, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” This phrase should remain the standard bearer for the rules of social networking communication in your company or organization.

Social networks, social media and website presence is an integral component of an effective and proactive public relations and marketing program. An organization must give concerted attention, and apply significant resources to these channels to sustain and grow ones business in the competitive national and global marketplace. An organization also needs to be prepared to address reactive communications protocols in response to uncontrollable outside sources. Reduce the threat to your organization by making sure your company employs strict protocols for staff at every level in the use of these new technologies. Provide clear and effective training on social networking and technology regularly to all teams from property maintenance to the CEO’s office. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Try to keep abreast of state and federal laws regarding digital communications and your rights and obligations regarding your content, and your company protocols. Don’t let the threats of a robust social networking campaign hold you back from the opportunities presented by this important communications tool. Go forth into digital space with knowledge and think before you post.


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