How to turn staff into your social media superheroes

Neil Davey
Head of editorial
Sift Media
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The rise in social networking has highlighted the danger of brand damage from untrained staff so how can you train your employees to respond appropriately? Neil Davey reports.

There's no escaping social media in the workplace. If your organisation has yet to embrace it, it will only be a matter of time. For the majority of companies already have social media running through the business, whether it's to recruit, as a customer service too or simply to inform the public of your existance.  However, there are always going to be times when even the most robust social media policy is tested. One area that appears to need the most attention is how staff are trained to deal with customer service complaints via social networks.

Setting a bad example?

When Silicon.com posted a story detailing how O2’s new personal unlocking code could potentially raise security concerns, it sparked a storm of protest among the website’s community. Alarmed by the security implications, members flocked to the page to vent their spleens about the telco’s move.
"This is ridiculous. Are O2 trying to make life easier for phone thieves?" raged one poster. "O2’s response is terrible," blasted another. However, the community hadn’t counted on one plucky O2 employee entering the fray to fight the corner for his company. Responding out of hours, and without mandate from his employer, David Heffernan came out fighting.
"I work for O2 Customer Services Prepay division and I feel that the posts on this site are born out of naivety and lack of thought than the customer truly understanding the concept of retrieving your PUK Code," he wrote. "I get calls day in day out from people who have blocked there[sic] phone and need the PUK Code and when I tell them you can retrieve it from the website they are more than happy to thank me."
He concluded: "So cynical britain has reared its ugly head again. My advise[sic] is get the fact before shouting your mouth off and you will realise O2 are leading the way to enhance the customer experience."
Such a spirited defence of his employer was admirable. But it did leave his bosses with a headache. While David was acting independently of his company, by stating that he was a member of the O2 team his response would be received as a communiqué direct from the telco itself. As has often been said, each and every member of staff represents the brand. So given the noble yet confrontational nature of David’s message, how should O2 respond? That was the question that O2’s head of communications and reputation Glenn Manoff had to wrestle with.
In Manoff’s own words: "This is a guy that has got wound up about PUK code and is passionately trying to put it right… You’re not going to do that unless you’ve got the right blood running through your veins and David is passionate about customers getting the right PUK codes. So do you show up and whack him with a stick and say ‘you’re sacked you can’t do that’ or do you reward him and say ‘this is exactly the kind of fan behaviour we want’? What do you do?"

The social conundrum

And of course O2 are far from the only business faced with this conundrum. The proliferation of social networking has posed many problems for brands, including concerns about its impact on productivity in the workplace, the leaking of sensitive corporate information online, the misuse of official company profiles and the use of networking sites by employees to criticise their own firm (Virgin Atlantic sacked 13 of its cabin crew after they used Facebook to claim that the airline’s planes were full of cockroache).
But the case of an employee acting out of hours and in defence of the brand is a particularly thorny issue. Organisations – particularly those at the larger end of the spectrum – are faced with an enormous task when it comes to identifying and responding to all of the conversations, questions and posts taking place online about their brand. Businesses need the extra eyes that their employees provide. But by giving their staff carte blanche to respond to any and every post they find, they run a very serious risk of damaging the brand reputation, rather than improving. Any message by an employee that isn’t in line with the company message, or that is offensive or unprofessional, will reflect badly on the brand. The business either media trains every person on its payroll, or risks unleashing a firm’s load of loose cannons onto the web.
For this reason, the only sensible option would appear to be the provision of very clear guidelines stating what an employee can and can’t do under the banner of the brand. Yet despite the aforementioned recent high-profile social networking mishaps, three-quarters of organisations continue to have no formal appropriate usage policies in place. A survey of 2,100 employers by recruitment agency, Manpower entitled ‘Social Networks vs Management – Harness the Power of Social Media’, found that a mere 22% of organisations have introduced guidelines as to how staff should use social networks such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
Ann Bevitt, a partner at Morrison Foerster, believes that social media policies will become critical, and that employers should train their staff on the policy. "Although employers cannot control employees’ use of social networking sites outside the workplace, they can provide guidance where such use could be associated with employees’ employment. For example, if employees choose to identify themselves as employees in their personal social networking activities, they should be encouraged to make clear that any views expressed are their own and not those of their employer. Moreover, no links should be provided to employers’ websites."
Gillian Mair, senior solicitor at Brodies LLP is in agreement. She adds: "Staff should be aware that if they post a comment on the internet at any time, they should do so in a manner which is consistent with their terms and conditions of employment and in such a way that it does not adversely affect an employer’s reputation. It is also essential that IT and internet policies clearly state that any breaches of the policy constitute a disciplinary offence and in serious cases may be treated as gross misconduct leading to summary dismissal. Policies should also be signed by staff to say that they have read and understood the terms."

Social task force

While such policies are vital, there is a danger that the threat of disciplinary procedures will discourage employees from playing any part in identifying and responding to messages about the brand. This can not only cause damage to the brand reputation, but also to employee morale. For this reason, in addition to very clear policies on the use of social networking, O2 has also developed a dedicated task force to take part in online conversations.

"One of the things that I’m doing now personally is building a team of people - initially it will be five but it will probably grow bigger - that do nothing but interact in these places," Manoff explained at the Sustainable Employee Engagement conference recently. "That way your employees never have to read this thing and feel lousy because someone out there is dissing your company and nobody is doing anything about it. People will be talking about your organisation in the online world and some of them will love you and some of them will hate your guts and nothing can change the way they feel. But showing that you care enough to participate and do it skilfully is important for your employee base to see. And we’re seeing this more and more.
"We’re recruiting people only internal to the company that want to get involved in these external conversations. But doing it in a very controlled way."
And what became of David? Was he thrown out on his ear or commended for his action? "It does not help our company’s reputation to go and really sound off on people on these websites," concludes Manoff. "But I think his heart was in the right place. So we sat him down and say ‘here’s how you might want to do it…’ The last thing you want to do is make examples of the people who act like fans."

Neil Davey is the editor of our sister site: MyCustomer.com where this feature was first published.

About Neil Davey

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