Companies that ask their employees to engage customers using personal social media accounts need to be aware of the risks involved and keep such accounts authentic and honest, refraining from attempts to manipulate the market.
According to Darryl Carlton, research director at Gartner, companies are looking to take advantage of the many benefits social media is touted to provide. These include the potential for increasing customer service levels at a reduced cost, allowing companies to engage with enthusiasts of their products, reaching out to new customers as well as increasing brand value.
However, Carlton noted that these opportunities come with "some very serious risks" as it creates an interactive and direct one-to-one relationship with the consumers, unlike advertising which is a one-way broadcast.
Ng Jun Wen, research analyst for ICT Practice Asia-Pacific at Frost & Sullivan, said companies will need to ensure employees who have public social accounts are qualified and well-equipped to handle two-way public conversations with customers.
He added that social media engagement has to be conducted by senior employees who understand the company's goals and are able articulate these on social media.
Carlton also noted that the potential risks in social media are not confined to employees.
He pointed to Rupert Murdoch's "self implosion" over comments he made on Twitter, noting that the News Corp Chairman and CEO found out for himself how challenging it was to personally navigate the online world.
Carlton said: "If a company chooses to become involved in social media, then they are going to have to live with the consequences--both good and bad. Experiences, good and bad, are exaggerated and magnified in real-time and there are no more secrets of any kind."
Authenticity, honesty the best policy
For companies that encourage their employees to be active on Twitter or other social media, Ng shared three guidelines they should take note of.
First, tweets or blogs should not contain personal opinions that are detrimental to the company.
"If employees have been tasked to tweet, they are still bound by the same employee code of conduct," he said.
However, Carlton noted that some messages might be misconstrued as being derogatory to the company, for example, when an employee provides honest support for a customer by telling the truth rather than spinning the marketing wheel.
Second, Ng said tweets with information should be linked back to official sources such as the company's Web site or a corporate blog.
He explained that this was important because tweets allow messages of up to only 140 characters and might not contain enough information to convey the proper context of the message.
Last, employees should be engaging and have an active two-way conversation with customers, he said. "By actively engaging with customers, employees would be able to develop successful customer relationships," he added.
Carlton further underscored authenticity and honesty as the two most important rules when companies participate in social media. "Don't try and manipulate the market," he said, adding that the social community would be quick to work out if the communication lacked conviction or was trying to manipulate market perceptions.
Social account ownership unclear
If a company asks its employees to tweet or blog using their personal accounts, the ownership of that account remains unclear.
This issue was brought to light in a court case last year in which a company charged its former employee for allegedly "misappropriating" a personal Twitter account. Writer Noah Kravitz changed his Twitter handle @PhoneDog_Noah to @noahkravitz after he left mobile phone reviews site, PhoneDog, bringing along his 17,000 followers to his new handle.
While the court accepted PhoneDog's argument that Kravitz had meddled with the company's advertisers, it did not address questions over whether the writer had mismanaged its Twitter followers.
Carlton noted that such situations were difficult to resolve.
"As the boundaries between work and personal life blur with 24/7 connectivity, [where] always-on social media and business e-mail [are] being received on personal devices, what constitutes intellectual property is becoming more difficult to separate between what an employee contributes to the company and what an employee takes from the company," he said.
Thus, he suggested that companies that want to own a social media account and the account's relationship with followers should create one that is maintained and contributed by more than one person.
"The company cannot ask its employees to contribute their IP in the form of social network, and then claim ownership of that network when the employee leaves," he added.
Individuals also have a stake in for-work social accounts.
Carlton said: "Individuals will be very protective of their social networks as these reflect their value in the community. They will not want their personal reputations damaged by comments made by their employer, or on behalf of their employer."
According to Ng, a personal social media account would "logically" belong to employees if the company requested them to create a private account. However, if the account was created as an official account the employer should "by right" own the Twitter handle or blog, he noted.
"Hence, employers should be explicit in their employee contracts," he said.
Companies need to stipulate social media accounts created and updated using company time are intellectual rights of the employer, and the account ownership transferred back when the employee leaves the company, he suggested.