Five ways companies use social media and look like jerks

Let's take a look at five ways companies use social media and end up making themselves look like complete and utter fools.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

There are two main aspects to every business. The first is the essence of what the business does, the products it makes, the services it performs, the processes necessary to make those things happen. The other aspect is, well, everything else -- everything from employment policies to marketing to company culture to social media.

Many businesses are quite good at their core competencies, but seem to lose their way on the everything-else part. Sometimes it's because the everything-else isn't, by definition, their core competency. Sometimes, it's because the leaders of the company have let themselves be led astray by over-enthusiastic legal teams, or perfectly-dressed business school graduates.

Either way, there comes a time when many businesses do things to let themselves look just plain bad. Obviously, the things-to-do-to-look-like-a-jerk scope of opportunity is huge, but let's narrow it down to something simple, like social media.

Let's take a look at five ways companies use social media and end up making themselves look like complete and utter fools:

1. Firing all 1,300 of your employees over email

While email isn't Facebook or Twitter, email was pretty much social networking before social networking was "cool." I'm kicking off this list of mistakes because it's the one that actually caused me to laugh out loud -- it was that dumb.

Hat's off to fellow ZDNet columnist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for pointing this one out. Apparently, Aviva, the sixth largest insurance company in the world, accidentally fired all 1,300 employees in its investment unit via email. Instead of sending a pink-slip email to one employee, Bloomberg reports a "clerical error" resulted in an email informing everyone to "turn over company property as they left the building".

So where's the jerk move here? It's not that they wound up in news reports the world over. The jerk move was firing someone over email. And it's not a jerk move because it could wind up in news reports all over the world, it's a jerk move because it's a jerk move.

2. Demanding Facebook passwords of your employees

We've been talking about this one a lot. On March 12, I wrote When it comes to demanding Facebook passwords, there needs to be a law protecting consumers. I sent a link to this article to a bunch of Congress-critters I know, currently serving in Washington.

Then, on March 23, Senator vows to stop employers asking for your Facebook password and then on March 25, US senators: Investigate employers asking for Facebook passwords. Coincidence? Probably.

Not that it worked, because on March 28, our illustrious Congress (and I blame both Dems and GOP) took the incredibly short-sighted move and voted down the bill to stop employers asking for Facebook passwords. Sigh.

So, beyond everything Congress tends to do, where's the jerk move? The jerk move is this: if you ask employees for their Facebook password, it will come back to haunt you. There will be lawsuits.

After all, one of your less self-controlled employees might get ahold of the passwords you demanded and choose to post as if they were another employee. Hilarity would not ensue. Worse, Facebook now has email. Many people are using their Facebook email account as their primary email password reset account for -- wait for it -- things like bank accounts.

Do you really want the liability of having access to your employees' bank accounts -- and the liability of what happens when some teeny-bopper in your employ decides to go shopping for new shoes using the access you've accidentally granted because you were stupid enough to insist the Facebook password was on an employment application which was stored in an unlocked file cabinet with all the others?

Bottom line, not only is asking for Facebook passwords a jerk move, it's a huge liability exposure.

3. Not letting employees post their job status on LinkedIn

So here's one that was new to me, but apparently, it's a "thing". Some companies have developed these "social network policies" and have started to go off the reservation with their demands. Now, to be clear, it's a smart strategy to have an employee policy because there will always be that one employee who does something incomprehensibly dumb and then claims he wasn't told it was unacceptable.

Downside of employee policies: whatever incomprehensibly dumb move comes from that one employee won't be covered in the policy guide. But that's what Word is for. Edit it, and reissue it, having learned just one more way the train can go off the rails.

Anyway, back to LinkedIn. Some companies are now demanding employees practice good taste on social networks. But they don't call it that. They insist that employees post disclaimers or avoid posting anything that shows their affiliation with their workplace.

This, from a legal point of view, is derived from the concept of apparent authority, where messaging from an employee in certain circumstances can be considered a formal statement by the company.

There is some complexity here, which I won't go into. Suffice to say that anyone in your organization who might be confused with having apparent authority in a discovery case should be properly trained on how to represent themselves online.

This brings us back to LinkedIn, where some employers are insisting their employees not post their employment status, while other employers are insisting their employees post opinion disclaimers.

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This, too, is not a simple issue, because there have been cases where employees have leaked future product plans on their LinkedIn profiles. But to insist that employees not list their term of employment at all? That's a jerk move.

Why is this a jerk move? Because LinkedIn is becoming not only the de facto resume of record, but it's often how we all learn more about other people and their professional backgrounds. If an employee were to leave off their time at your company, that would be a gap in their resume. Further, it'd be just strange.

Quality prospective employees, seeing that there were very few LinkedIn profiles mentioning your company or discovering that you didn't allow employees to post their employment with you (and you're not the CIA), might just choose to go work somewhere else -- leaving you with only those prospective employees who don't care about how their employment history looks.

Also, let's be clear. LinkedIn is not like Facebook and it's not even like Twitter. Most of-sound-mind people aren't going to post pictures of their drunken partying in their resume. LinkedIn is a professional resource, and just about everyone has figured that out. Except, maybe, a few jerk employers.

In other words, in return for a jerk move, you'll get the lower quality employees. Hey, maybe you deserve each other.

4. Deleting comments and questions from your Facebook page

This is just so special. Many companies have figured out they can use Facebook for marketing, like, you know, an ad. So they put up a Facebook page, leave space for comments and questions, and then -- when they actually get comments and questions -- either don't answer them or delete them.

Yep, it happens more often than you'd think and companies as varied as Radio Shack and Victoria's Secret are guilty. Hmm... gives "robot teddy" a whole new meaning, doesn't it? But I digress.

Our own fabulous Friending Facebook super-friend Emil Protalinski reports that Retailers don’t answer, delete Facebook customer questions.

So where's the jerk move here? These newfangled social media dooooodads are meant to be two-way. That means that you're supposed to use these tools to talk to your customers, use them as an additional customer support and even market research tool. They're not just new ad formats.

So, if you put up a Facebook page and enable customers to post comments and questions, monitor them. If a customer asks a question, answer it.

While we're at it, don't go deleting comments. If a customer says your company sucks, you shouldn't delete it. In fact, if a lot of customers say your company sucks, maybe you should take that to heart and try to suck less.

The only time it's acceptable to delete comments is when they're not acceptable (racist, abusive, profane, etc). Otherwise, leave them the frak alone.

5. Creating involvement devices and not expecting involvement

Oh, poor McDonalds. They really tried.

Apparently, they had this campaign where they promoted the use of the #McStories hashtag, with the hopes that people would tell heartwarming stories of McDonalds experiences. Or something. I guess.

We can't exactly repeat what customers said using the #McStories hashtag, but let's just say most of it wasn't about how warm and tasty their fries are. Instead, customers spoke their minds -- and it wasn't pretty.

So what's the jerk move here? What did McDonalds do wrong? Actually, nothing unless you count being a bit naive. They didn't deny the hashtag had gone bad, and they tried to involve their customers. The jerk move this time was with customers who went above and beyond complaints, and moved into a place where some consumers said such nasty things (things not safe for work or home) that dialog couldn't happen.

Sometimes, companies want to reach out to their customers, even want to hear the bad things they have to say, and simply get spanked back so hard, they don't try it again.

So, consumers, if you want your vendors and brands to listen to you, you have to be civil back. When we say social media is a two-way street, that applies to both brands and consumers.

Civility is not obsolete, even if you have to keep it to less than 140 characters per statement.

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