steve ballmer toungeThe first lesson businesses need to learn in the social media age is that they don’t have anywhere near as much control over their own brand as they used to have. I still run into CMOs of large corporations who approach social media like it’s a disease that needs to be quarantined and weaponized. But if you’ve ever seen Jurassic Park, you know that nature has a way of getting its way. The same is true of social media. Seemingly innocuous and even private dealings for your business can define who you are to a huge swath of the world in a social media instant.

There’s a skit from an old Bill Cosby routine where he wonders why people subject themselves to the side effects and indignities of drugs. At one point, he wonders particularly about cocaine:

I said to a guy, “Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful,” and he said, “Because it intensifies your personality.” I said, “Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=achFxzgS0gE

I kind of look at social media the same way. It intensifies your personality as a company. This week, I have two diametrically opposed examples of how social media can positively or negatively shape your brand image.

Murphy’s Law of Social Media

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Murphy’s Law famously says, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” My own social media adaptation says, “Anything that can go viral will go viral.” But not usually the stuff you want to go viral. The first example of this comes from WeBuyAnyCar.com. Some intrepid consumer decided to test this policy by sending a picture of Little Tikes Cozy Coupe.

we buy any car

We don’t know the motives of the guy who sent this picture. And we don’t know much about Adam Jennings, either. Maybe we caught Adam on a particularly bad day. But none of that matters because this picture went viral on social media and now the business looks, well, business-like. Cold and humorless. It’s always easy to criticize businesses for incidents like this, so how could they have handled it differently?

It just so happens I have a similar example of a pretty large company who handled a situation with humor and grace. They were justly rewarded by the social media gods as a result. Cadbury received an obviously insincere job application and could have simply tossed it into the circular file without a second thought. Instead, someone decided to act as a human and sent the following letter to the applicant:

Cadbury applicant rejection

This image also went viral. The same applies in this case: We don’t know if Alan Cole – or Cadbury in general, for that matter – is like this all of the time or whether we caught him on a particularly good day. The point in sharing these two examples is that it’s worth considering that almost any action your company takes can go viral on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook in an instant.

What Can You Do?

Well, we know there are a few things you definitely cannot do. You can’t screen every action and every communication by every employee to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen. You can’t predict and you can’t prevent these types of incidents. But here are some things you can do to inoculate yourself against it.

  1. Define and promote your corporate culture and employer branding. You get to decide what your values are and the environment in which your employees work. Establish and communicate these values with employees.
  2. Develop policies based on those values. Once you know what those values are, develop policies that reflect them. This includes social media policies that instruct everyone on how to interact with the outside world. How should they handle a public complaint? Who should handle it? What’s the escalation process?
  3. Provide training! This is a step that I don’t see any companies doing and it baffles me. Every employee with a Facebook page or a smart phone is both a potential good will ambassador and a loaded weapon for your company. Why not provide a little social media training to help ensure they don’t hurt themselves or someone else?

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