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When Does a Personal Social Media Post Become the Company’s Business?

Adventures in the World of Social Media, Corporate Reputation & Blowback

It’s every business leader’s nightmare: something an employee did on Twitter or Facebook or TikTok before joining the company, or perhaps in his or her off hours today, suddenly takes on a life of its own and becomes associated with YOUR brand, YOUR company, and YOUR values. And then the nightmare gets worse: to try to get control of the situation, you dismiss the employee, but the blowback from your own staff, your stakeholders and the public at large becomes an all-consuming firestorm.

Meanwhile, the poor person is out of a job and is alone at the center of his or her own horror show without resources or support. How does that look for you as an “employer of choice”?

This happened – again – recently, this time to the Associated Press, which prides itself on its neutral objective stand on issues and has a tough line on political statements by its staff.  The agency fired 22-year-old Emily Wilder three weeks into her new job as a news associate. The AP says she violated its social media policy, but it hasn’t said how or when or with what. Some speculate the agency buckled to pressure from conservative political groups and media, which dug up postings she had made as a student activist supporting the Palestinian cause.

Ms. Wilder ended up without a job and the AP ended up with a PR mess – and more than 100 of its staff signed an open letter protesting how the case was handled and at the unclear messages around its policies.

What can a business leader do to avoid a similar fate?

The most important thing is to think long, hard, and inclusively about what your social media policies are, whether and how they should be formulated differently in the future, and how they are actually understood by the staff.

Good understanding about the particular legal environment you operate in is crucial, as is an open collaboration with staff groups or unions. Trying to influence what people do when they are off the clock can be more a matter of appealing to staffs’ common sense and common sense of mission than a matter of rules and punishments.

Make sure that the guidelines you write not only sound good but are practical and clear enough to be understood and enforced consistently and fairly.

Communicate fully and constantly about your social media policies. Have a continuing dialog about the reasons why a company’s reputation is important and ways in which every staff action on social media can either augment that or harm that.

Make a social media audit a regular part of the hiring process. Not every teenager who does semi-naked hand stands on TikTok will end up being a problem employee in his or her 20s, but getting a sense of people’s postings styles, their public personas and their “edginess” can at the very least inform how their induction process should be run, and in the most serious cases, give you reason to question whether the fit is right.

Finally, make transparency, honesty, inclusiveness, and clarity the cornerstones of your company culture. Employees who truly and fully trust the company and its mission tend not to be the ones who then harm it by their actions on social media. Employees want to work together to build their company’s reputation and standing – you just need to provide the framework and the proper environment.

It doesn’t have to be a nightmare. But it does have to be managed.

David Schlesinger

David Schlesinger is a Consultants Collective member consultant and a member of JEM's board of advisors. David advises on running complex, dispersed global organizations with an emphasis on China and media. He was formerly Chairman of Thomson Reuters China, responsible for building relationships, providing thought leadership and creating strategy for operations across interests in financial markets, legal and regulatory databases, scientific information and journalism. He was appointed to that role after four years as global Editor-in-Chief of Reuters News, running all aspects of the 3,000-journalist strong international news service. Previously, he was Global Managing Editor, in charge of worldwide operations and news editing. David joined Reuters Hong Kong bureau in 1987. From 1989 to 1995, he ran news operations in Taiwan, China and the Greater China region in a series of posts. He then transferred to New York to serve in turn as Financial Editor, Managing Editor for the Americas, and Executive Vice President and Editor of the Americas.

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