The social media corporate identity crisis

The recent "hijacking" of the ExxonMobil brand for Twitter use made a whoosh as the news traveled around the socialsphere. It also brought into view a lot of questions around brand validity and responsibility in terms of social networking.
Written by Jennifer Leggio, Contributor

The recent "hijacking" of the ExxonMobil brand for Twitter use made a whoosh as the news traveled around the socialsphere. It also brought into view a lot of questions around brand validity and responsibility in terms of social networking. Joel Postman, principal of Socialized, authored this guest piece on the social media corporate identity crisis, which includes a Q&A with one of the newest brands to join Twitter -- Popeyes Chicken.

The social media corporate identity crisis
Call it “brandjacking”. Or call it “an open brand” managed through online consumer conversations. Either way, social media, with its often loose standards regarding user identity, has opened up a Pandora’s Box of opportunities for confusion about who is, and isn’t, an authorized company spokesperson.

Last week Exxon Mobil confirmed that Janet, who called herself ExxonMobilCorp on the microblogging service Twitter, was not an authorized representative of the company. The announcement spurred a flurry of reactions, including observations that social media is inherently untrustworthy, and that companies, like Twitter, that run these networks don’t do enough to police the usage of company and personal identities.

To reaffirm my faith in social media, I decided to contact Popeyes Chicken to find out a little more about one of my favorite company representatives, @PopeyesChicken, on Twitter. I did an e-mail Q&A with Alicia Thompson, vice president, communications & PR for Popeyes, and I am pleased to report, in keeping with Popeyes’ brand, their Twitter presence is “Bonafide.”

Q. [Joel] How was the decision arrived at within Popeyes Chicken to develop a presence on Twitter?

A. [Alicia] When we launched our Popeyes BonafideTM campaign in the spring, we knew that we wanted to reach younger demographics, so we included a number of social media tools in our marketing efforts including Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Q. How many people "staff" the Twitter handle?

A. One person "staffs" the handle...surprisingly NOT from the marketing group, but from the technology team.

Q. Have they been given guidelines as to what they can and cannot say?

A. No, however, he always aligns his tweets along our core brand messaging.

Q. The Popeyes Chicken person/people I have encountered on Twitter seem to be very friendly, and have a great sense of humor. Is this intentional?

A. He's naturally a friendly, humorous person, so the tweets are in no way contrived. What you "read" is truly who he is.

Q. To what degree are they "empowered" to handle customer issues?

A. He acknowledges consumer issues and directs them to our Guest Relations team so that they can be handled appropriately.

Q. What did you expect to get out of being on Twitter, and what results (of any kind) have you achieved?

A. We are still experimenting with social media and have no real expectations. As for results, we have generated a good amount of interest (folks like you) and we are definitely being noticed.

Q. Any other thoughts you'd like to share on either Twitter or Popeyes Chicken's social media strategy overall?

A. We will continue to explore social media where appropriate and hope to utilize it even more in the future as we continue our efforts to engage younger consumers.

Next: What are the ramifications of borrowing a brand? -->

It’s interesting that the Popeyes Chicken Twitter representative is neither the CEO nor a marketing person. Popeyes has done the right thing by choosing someone who is articulate and enthusiastic about the company. Company spokespeople can come from almost anywhere in the ranks.

So when one or more people “borrow” a company brand online, is it always is harmful? Arguably, a company like Exxon Mobil, in a demanding regulatory environment and a frequent target of attacks by environmentalists, probably needs to maintain closer control of spokespeople, company authorized and otherwise. On the other hand, there are many occasions when a company’s brand is “hijacked” for the better. For example, I am on a Facebook group called La Pavoni Europiccola for enthusiasts of the Italian espresso machine. This group is not authorized by Pavoni, but is largely positive and only enhances the brand. There are thousands of groups like this one on Facebook, often using copyright logos and images, but companies like Pavoni, wisely, choose to look the other way. If the results are positive, why not let consumers do your marketing?

Twitter is a bit different in this regard in that generally each user name represents a single person, or a person acting as a representative of a company or organization. Twitter’s Terms of Service do not specifically ban misrepresentation as an authorized company representative, a celebrity, or any other form of “identity mismanagement,” but does state:

“We reserve the right to reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.”

In other words, if a company protests, Twitter may take back a user name. Surprisingly, as of this morning, @ExxonMobilCorp is still a live account on Twitter, with the latest “tweet” (update) on August 5, “I am an employee of ExxonMobil, who has decided to put forward her pride in her own company.” I contacted Twitter to find out whether ExxonMobil had asked them to reclaim the username, or whether any other action was under consideration, and Biz Stone, Twitter co-founder, would only say “Twitter responds to requests from company representatives with a policy that supports trademark, brands, and businesses. If there is a conflict with our terms of service, companies can contact us and we'll work to get it resolved.”

In the meantime, there are still issues to be settled in regards to corporate identity outside the four walls of the corporation. For corporations who actually are present on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc., full disclosure is mandatory. Companies like JetBlue, Zappos, Popeyes Chicken, Dell and GM have done an outstanding job of this.

For consumers, there are several ways to verify the authenticity of a social network identity. (And a bit of a shame they need to do so.) Check the user’s profile for a link to a legitimate web site and for brand identity consistent with the company’s web site and advertising. Do a Google search on the user name, or on the company name and the name of the social network. Read previous updates/posts from the user to see if they sound like they came from a company spokesperson. Until business use of social networks is more established, these steps may be necessary for anyone who is unsure as to whether they are talking to an authorized company representative.

While it would be useful for companies to add their social network credentials to the corporate news page, thereby enabling consumers to validate a social network identity, it would be simplistic to say this should be “required.”

And for social networks like Twitter, some more restrictive Terms of Service followed with genuine enforcement would both protect consumers, and make the service more valuable to the companies who do want to engage with consumers. Because without an assurance of trustworthiness, services like Twitter are useless to bona fide businesses.

Joel Postman is the principal of Socialized, a consultancy that helps companies make effective use of social media in public relations, marketing and corporate communications. Joel is a recognized authority on public relations, social media and executive communications. His background includes nearly a decade of Fortune 500 communications leadership, at Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems, and for four years he was the speechwriter to the CEO of Sun. Prior to launching Socialized, he was EVP for Emerging Media at Eastwick, a mid-sized Silicon Valley tech PR agency. Joel has a degree in communications, and holds several technology patents. Joel is working on a new book, "SocialCorp: Social Media Goes Corporate", which will be published by New Riders in November.

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