There was a fairly major example of how external social networks can spin out of control last week: Virgin Atlantic (which despite its name is a major international airline that flies all over the world) have a FaceBook presence, with 6,944 members as I write this.
Last week Virgin got a lot of publicity for firing '13 flight attendants for criticising the airline's flight safety standards and describing its passengers as "chavs" on a social networking website'. (Chavs is 'a mainly derogatory slang term in the United Kingdom for a person whose lifestyle, branded casual clothing (especially if counterfeit), speech and/or mannerisms are perceived to be common, proletarian and vulgar. 'Chav' is often used as a stereotype to refer to white, poorly educated, aggressive youths, but youth and aggression are not the defining attributes of a 'chav'. The term is similar to America's 'white trash' stereotype).
A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said: "There is a time and a place for Facebook. But there is no justification for it to be used as a sounding board for staff of any company to criticise the very passengers who pay their salaries."
"We have numerous internal channels for our staff to feed back legitimate and appropriate issues relating to the company."
Virgin Atlantic (one of my favorite airlines) seem to have fallen into the classic trap of forgetting that FaceBook is a public forum - looking at their online presence there I see a cocktail of different marketing communication focuses, some slightly irritating, and not much in the way of building a relationship with me.
There's some mission statement bragging, links to new Virgin commercials, tie ins with the new James Bond film, flight special offers, a Branson attack on British Airways and a suggestion you photograph your Virgin socks wherever you go. No obvious way for me to get involved unless I want to post to the discussion forums: Virgin take note of how others are engaging their customers to get involved and make your group in FaceBook 'sticky'.
By creating an international public forum people can essentially talk about anything within Virgins' FaceBook discussion boards. Clearly it's not a good idea to have jaded staff discussing their perception of passengers and safety processes in these areas, but external customers can pretty much say what they want...
The public firing of staff around this brought a lot of negative publicity. It's a great example of the power vacuum that happens in companies that don't have coherent internal networks. There is a yinyang relationship between a well organized internal network (where the fired flight attendants should have been allowed to whine and grumble, and also been given guidance) and the outward facing social network, where Virgin's high standards of customer service should apply to promptly commune with customer questions and concerns as well as enjoy the 'fan' status conferred on them by members of their group.