"Your brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room" is a quote attributed to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. Traditionally companies have been able to control their brand message, by and large, through their communications and actions. But, as Bezos says, things have changed and brands, in effect, are now what people say about them...

Traditionally companies have been able to control their brand message, by and large, through their communications and actions. But, as Bezos says, things have changed and brands, in effect, are now what people say about them and organisations can only attempt to control proceedings by influencing the conversation that is happening around their brand and, in particular, on social media. Social Media consultant Jo Dodds looks at the ramifications of a weak social media policy.

What impact does that have on how organisations engage with social media? Increasingly companies are using social media as part of their marketing mix. How they do this varies depending on the size of the organisation and their understanding of, and commitment to, these online conversations, tempered by their confidence in how to manage the process to get the best result with the least risk.

Small business owners have personal control over their social media

'Solopreneurs' and owners of very small businesses who manage their own social media from their own commercial property are, of course, directly in control of their posting online. This may imply that there is less chance of them saying the wrong thing and damaging their brand.

However, the individual nature of the interactions can, sometimes, make it easier to let things slip that may not be appropriate, especially in cases where emotion takes over.

Your brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room. - Jeff Bezos, Founder, Amazon.com

For example, only last week a burger restaurant owner in Houston, Texas got a little overheated about a - rather bland - restaurant review and posted some 'ranting' tweets. There has been some backlash and he lost some followers. Clearly his rants had a potential negative impact on his brand but he also gained 100 new followers in 30 minutes, so in the end he may not agree. And this does throw up the old point about there being no such thing as bad publicity!

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Should large companies encourage employees to use social media?

With larger companies there is more scope for the organisation to interact with their audience by encouraging a number of employees to use social media via blogging as well as on platformns like Twitter and Facebook.

But in many cases it's hard to convince larger companies that the advantages of opening up social media to employees outweigh the potential issues of employees saying the wrong thing online and potentially damaging the brand. Often employees aren't actually allowed to create content online that can be attributed to their employer.

Blogging and social media can really help organisations to increase their visibility in the marketplace and the more employees engaged in this process the better, assuming they are well trained and that, vitally, the culture of the organisation supports this openness.

The challenge for organisations is to formulate and enforce policies and a culture that enables employees to interact and act online as advocates for the business whilst protecting the company from the potential negative effects of those interactions.

What happens to the brand if it goes wrong?

A major concern is, of course, what happens if something goes wrong, if an employee says something that they shouldn't or if a customer says something negative about the business.

Customer care training in dealing with complaints often focuses on the power of turning a complaining customer into a 'raving fan' by managing the complaint properly and that when handled well a complaint is often more useful in building a company's reputation than a good comment or testimonial.

In 2007, American chain Home Depot had some very poor feedback on MSN from a disgruntled customer, which prompted hundreds of similar comments on the board. As a result the new CEO responded in his own MSN article with an open apology asking for continuing feedback to enable the company to keep getting better.

They now closely monitor social media and respond quickly to any issues. One blogger has been prompted to post a blog about them entitled 'Social Media to the Rescue! (A Customer Service Success Story)' following the excellent resolution of a complaint that he had, which he'd tweeted about.

The extent of social media effects

What about when the online interactions aren't made on behalf of the company or during working hours?

Price Chopper in the US saw a tweet that was criticising them. They saw that the individual who had tweeted was employed by a business who they had some sort of commercial relationship with. And although the tweet wasn't related to that relationship, and was on a personal account, they complained to the employing company that the tweet could jeopardise the relationship between the two companies and they requested that the employer take some action against the tweeter.

So, the tweet was written as a personal tweet by an individual, who may not have even considered his employer's social media guidelines, if they existed, as this was on a personal account and yet Price Chopper felt there was enough of a connection that his employer should take some action.

Price Chopper attempted to deal with the situation offline, but it was taken back online as it ended up on the blog of a friend of the individual concerned who disagreed with how the situation had been handled.

What happened in this case is that Price Chopper caused more damage to their brand than the original tweet did due to their 'over the top' reaction.

This case highlights the rather grey area of when online interactions may - or may not - be considered to be part of an individual's relationship with their employer.

Social media misuse case law

In New York there have been a number of examples of City employees being fired for 'ranting' online. Some of them have since been overturned as unfair, due to the circumstances of the rants, but not all of them. And this is an area where legislation and case law is developing both in the States and increasingly in the UK.

In the US there were 129 cases involving social media in the workplace last year, up from a handful the previous year, likely to be a continuing trend on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Preece v JD Wetherspoon plc, a pub manager was verbally abused by certain customers. The manager posted in her Facebook account about the situation and criticised the customers. A relative saw the comments and complained to the company who subsequently dismissed the manager for gross misconduct.

At tribunal the company were able to demonstrate that their internet use policy stated that employees should not write or contribute to a blog, including Facebook in a way that would lower the reputation of the company or its customers and the dismissal was upheld.

JD Wetherspoon have clear policies and procedures and work diligently to enforce them. Incorporating social media into existing company policies is still an area to work on within many companies. And, of course, this is against a backdrop of concern about what is being said online on behalf of a brand, whether intentional and authorised or not.

Protecting the Brand

If you can no longer completely define your brand and if you acknowledge that "your brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room", what can you do to protect your brand.

It is about defining your organisational culture in relation to social media including who in your business is authorised to join in the online conversation about your brand. And ensuring you have guidelines in place to provide a point of reference for those people including what to do when something goes wrong, as it most certainly will on occasions!