Written by Paula Toole
Social media is now an integral part of business and society, with everyone from global corporations to your auntie using it to communicate with their connections.
In the case of Starbucks, social media allows it to keep its 11 million followers engaged and entertained on a daily basis, posting relevant news, special offers and video content that can maintain interest and generate brand awareness.
At the other end of the spectrum, Auntie Mildred can use Facebook to like her nephew’s new profile picture and post statuses on everything from the General Election to Britain’s Got Talent.
The key difference between the two is that while Auntie Mildred’s 150 Facebook friends are unlikely to turn a blind eye to her support for Jeremy Corbyn or her love of the dancing dog on BGOT, Starbucks’ followers span the entire breadth of society across dozens of countries, each of whom needs engaging with in different ways, and each of whom could be offended with a seemingly innocuous post, share or retweet.
For brands, this is becoming a constant conundrum; how to maintain a social media presence that gives the organisation a public voice, while also ensuring that any content amplified across the web cannot be misunderstood, misinterpreted or offend anyone.
Of course, a simple fact of life is that there are always some people who will take offence at anything, and in the digital age, the anonymity that the internet provides allows trolling to occur in any sector, which almost requires a qualification in itself to handle.
Social media manager is a job title that did not even exist ten years ago, but is now an essential role in many organisations that can help to filter out abuse, respond to allegations and accusations and shut down trolling, while disseminating positive news and opinion.
The problem is that companies only have control over what is published by their own social media accounts, and although they can respond to any direct posts, it is almost impossible to control what people across the world say about a brand.
The old saying that no publicity is bad publicity is, of course, balderdash, but a direct consequence of bad publicity is the ability to control it and help to rectify the situation – something that social media allows brands to do with immediate effect, helping to nip issues in the bud instantaneously.
When social media is managed in this way, it effectively adds another layer of security around the process, not only ensuring that anything potentially inflammatory is nipped in the bud and dealt with quickly, but also preventing ill-thought-out tweets or posts from ever seeing the light of day.
Two contrasting examples from the music industry are those of Adele and Kanye West – undoubtedly two of the world’s biggest artists, but with vastly different perceptions in the public eye.
While Adele has released three ballad-heavy albums to critical acclaim and largely keeps her personal life out of the public eye, Kanye tweets anything and everything from his life, including the adventures of his wife Kim, and regularly incites online riots by comparing himself to the likes of Picasso and the Apostles and commenting on sensitive issues such as the Bill Cosby trial.
The difference between the two? Kanye’s posts are handled solely by himself, with the rapper having access to his accounts at any time. Adele, on the other hand, must send her tweets through two levels of approval before they see the light of day; a direct consequence of her self-confessed habit of drunk tweeting earlier in her career.
While two levels of approval seems excessive, it ensures that no inflammatory debates arise and Adele’s image in the public eye is safeguarded – something that is certainly not the case with Kanye, who famously begged billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to help dig him out of $53 million of debt.
Although the music business is a vastly different animal from many others industries, the same fundamentals apply to protecting image; it is a 24/7 operation that can be undone at any time, especially by a 140-character sentence that is seen by tens of millions of people.
All brands are aware of the effect that bad publicity can have on them, and although a crisis management plan will generally be in place and now include social media handling, the best cure – as ever – is prevention.
Social media can be a force for good and brands can play a significant role in this; simply retweeting a post can be seen as a ringing endorsement and boost its exposure exponentially, but at the same time care must be taken not to promote or vocalise anything that may come back to haunt an organisation.
It is a fine balancing act that requires constant attention, but – if applied successfully – can have a positive, long-lasting effect on brand image and reputation.