Corporate social media policy: Are you in or are you out?

Corporates around the world are facing a profound question right now. It’s about whether they put a toe into the social media pool or dive in at the deep end. Both approaches can be disastrous. The crux of the issue though is – there’s little option but to engage. It’s not a question of ‘if’ – it’s a question of ‘when, where and how?’

When social media went even halfway mainstream, some corporates, via their opportunistic ad agencies, thought of it as a low-cost advertising medium. There were naïve attempts to peddle their snake oil under the guise of “consumer comment” or “happy customer endorsement”. What they discovered, as have many others more recently, is that social media is rigorous in outing dishonesty in any shape or form.

What’s delightful and terrifying at the same time about social media is the utterly uncontrolled immediacy of it.

Nhlanhla Nene (then Director General in the ministry of finance, now Deputy Minister and an extremely capable man) was being featured on SABC Morning Live TV when his chair collapsed on camera. He became an international celebrity within the hour. He temporarily lost his sense of humour, then regained it and earned our admiration.

Nestlé took a very haughty stance when Greenpeace queried the origins of the palm oil it used in the production of Kit Kat chocolate products. So Greenpeace crafted a really smart TV commercial. It featured a bored man shredding documents, reaching for a Kit Kat, breaking off a finger and crunching it. But it wasn’t a chocolate finger. It was an Orangutan finger. The Nestlé palm oil was being sourced from Indonesia and endangered species jungle habitat was being destroyed. Global negative response was phenomenal.

The Nestlé CEO landed up contritely apologizing on international TV and promising that, in the future, they would verify origins of all raw materials. Given that toxic Melamine was also found in some of their baby formula (also due to iffy origin) not too long before the Kit Kat debacle, one hopes Nestlé have learned something.

Tiger Woods took stick on social media by dithering for four months before making a half-baked and appallingly contrived ‘apology’ with a hand-picked, non-media audience. He suffered a flood of derisive jokes and comments as a result.

Tony Hayward, the BP CEO had his worst nightmare come true when viral footage of the Gulf of Mexico oil catastrophe (no, it wasn’t a ‘spill’ – you do that with a glass of milk) had people around the planet in uproar. He suffered from serious foot-in-mouth disease and BP replaced him as media spokesperson with their Chairman. The man is a Scandinavian and instead of saying they had not communicated well with stakeholders, he referred to us as ‘the little people’, a phrase made notorious by hotel heiress Leona Hemlsey who was “busted for stealing from the corporate cookie jar”.

What’s the point of all of this? Marshall McLuhan, the legendary media guru, said that the medium is the message and predicted we’d be working in a global village. He was right and we are. Via social media, the time to global market is immediate. The concept of corporate media management has gone out of the door. You can’t control it, but you can learn to be proactive. Plus respect the vital need for candour and transparency when things go wrong in your organisation or with your service.

The biggest paradox is that South African giants like the mobile phone networks have done poorly in their attempts to engage and keep in touch with customers. Vodacom and Cell C admit they don’t monitor Twitter over weekends. Ah, so they have a part-time social media strategy of engagement? Not advisable, definitely not sustainable. The worst 3G outage in years took place on Sunday 19th September, but Vodacom were not monitoring the cries for information from their stranded wireless internet users. We languished in cyber hell without connectivity. Outcome for me? Tipping point finally reached. I had ADSL installed at my home office and downgraded my Vodacom 3G to the bare minimum for when I’m not near a WiFi hotspot.

The lesson for corporates is this: You can’t experiment with social media. You’d better have a real strategy for using it. Have people who understand it managing it for you. Make sure they’re passionate about it. All companies can and should learn from FNB’s helpful, ever-present and responsive @rbjacobs on Twitter. You can’t hide away in your plush offices and hope that angry tweets or Facebook posts will evaporate into cyberspace. They won’t. They’ll just go viral.

You have been warned.



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