Q&A: Charlie Pownall: “It’s too easy to say something silly online”

Author: Doveen Schecter | Date: 25 Nov 2015

The author and online reputation specialist on why employees’ behaviour on social media is a risk worth thinking about

Charlie Pownall - ProfileThe issue of protecting and defending your organisation’s name and image online is more than just a matter of compliance. As businesses pay considerable attention to nurturing a digital employer brand, they still frequently overlook the risks associated with security breaches, reputational issues or the behaviour of employees on social media. People Management spoke to Charlie Pownall, the Hong Kong-based author of Managing Online Reputation: How to Protect Your Company on Social Media (Palgrave Macmillan) about how to strike the right balance.
Companies continue to make mistakes when responding to negative issues online. What are the most common errors?
There are many different types of threats to companies online, from IT security and privacy breaches to online attacks by activists and backlashes against corporate announcements and marketing campaigns. All can lead to serious financial and reputational damage. Nonetheless, just as many problems are self-inflicted, more often than not because the organisation has chosen to ignore it, they respond too slowly or deny it has happened. In addition, companies discovered trying to suppress or hide negative comments or accusations, paying third parties to undermine their detractors, or seen to be overreacting by making unreasonable legal threats only add fuel to the fire.
 
What’s the best approaching to managing what employees do online?
In the past, incidents involving aberrant employees tended to be rare, but the ease with which they can now say something silly or inappropriate on Facebook, leak confidential information, or set up an anonymous blog or website to level accusations against management, has resulted in many more awkward public situations for companies. Unfortunately, such incidents can also be extremely damaging.
 
There is no uniform rule that applies to how you should respond to rogue employees: they have to be handled case by case. Much depends on the context, notably the nature of the grievance, whether or not it is justified, the credibility of the individual, the reputation of your organisation, and how the issue is being seen by both the public and by your own people. However, in general, it is advisable to move quickly to address the issue on the channel, showing you are taking it seriously and, when you are confident you have the facts, to set out your position as fully and clearly as possible.
 
Given the sensitive and sometimes highly confrontational and damaging nature of the employee incidents, and the intensity of the online backlash that can follow, it can be tempting to react aggressively. A forceful response can certainly work if the accusation is particularly flimsy and the employee has little support, but as a general rule you avoid getting into public fights, assume everything you say internally will be leaked and make sure everything you say is based on fact rather than emotion.
 
What are the most effective ways of limiting employee-related online incidents from happening in the first place?
Organisations of all shapes and sizes now have to work harder to ensure their people are motivated and happy and less inclined to leave early or cause trouble. At root, the prescription is an old one - a healthy working environment with strong values, a culture of listening, and fair compensation. There are also some specific actions that will help minimise the likelihood of employees going AWOL online. One is to ensure you have a simple, clear set of policies that set out how your people are expected to behave online, that these are consistent with and naturally flow from your business code, and that they are educated thoroughly and regularly in what these mean in practice. Another is to ensure you only allow people with the requisite training to act as online spokespeople for your company, and that access to official company social media profiles is carefully guarded.