The prevalent use of social media platforms for both personal and professional networking is eroding the era in which your private affairs were none of the boss’ business. Maintaining separate personal and professional lives is increasingly challenging in the internet age, as the reputation of individuals and organisations can be affected by the click of a mouse.
This calls for boards to be aware of the effect that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which will be discussed in this article, can have on an organisation’s reputation. This is especially pertinent in light of Facebook’s recent roll out of the “Timeline” format, which is resurfacing content that many had thought was buried in their online past. For many individuals and organisations, those embarrassing photos of the Christmas party back in 2007, or those questionable comments made during the teething stages of your organisation, are no longer an accurate reflection of the status quo.
Does your organisation’s online image need a clean up? This article will discuss tips for protecting your organisation’s online reputation and using social media to your organisation’s best advantage.
Facebook is widely used by not for profit organisations (NFPs) to communicate with members and the public, and to rally support for various causes. It even has a special profile page for NFPs called Non-Profits on Facebook which provides useful resources and tips on getting the best out of your profile. [https://www.facebook.com/nonprofits]. Whilst having a Facebook presence represents undeniable advantages for your organisation, it is important to be aware of the format changes and how these may affect your organisation and associated individuals.
Facebook is phasing out the ‘News Feed’ profile view and replacing it with a ‘Timeline’. This new format potentially leaves your organisation’s reputation vulnerable, as it presents your organisation’s entire Facebook history at a glance, by granting viewers pinpoint access to particular days, months and years. This is a stark contrast to the former News Feed format, under which less recent posts to a Facebook profile only appeared to viewers if they spent significant time scrolling through months or years of wall activity.
There has been an outcry from Facebook users who have been stung by the Timeline, as the ghosts of their online past have come back to haunt them. This is not only a result of easier access to particular events in your organisation’s online history, but it is also due to the fact that the Timeline format selects events, comments or photos from your organisation’s history and presents them to viewers as highlights from a certain period, whether you actually consider them a ‘highlight’ or not. This is a reminder for all Facebook users that they do not necessarily control what the public will see on their profile. For individuals, it may be relatively easy to regain control of what viewers will see on their profile, by hiding or deleting certain posts. However, for organisations this may not be so simple, due the importance of maintaining transparency regarding your organisation’s history.
It is important for NFPs to maintain transparency of their past and present activities to members and the public. Merely deleting negative or dubious commentary which appears on your organisation’s Facebook page may actually cause damage to your reputation, as occurred to Nestle in 2010. Nestle’s deletion of negative posts on its Facebook profile in response to public protest regarding its production practices, only exacerbated the public relations mess which it was already facing.
This issue calls for increased monitoring and governance of social media usage by NFPs in order to protect their public image and brands. As NFPs’ activities, and those of its associated individuals, become increasingly open to online scrutiny, boards must exercise caution to strike a balance between protecting their NFP’s reputation and maintaining transparency of its history and operations.
If managed properly, the Timeline format can be advantageous for NFPs, as it provides easy navigation, is appealing to the eye and allows ample space for an appropriate cover photo or logo. Beth Kanter provides a useful source of ideas and discussion of NFPs’ social media usage on “Beth’s Blog: How Networked Nonprofits Are Using Social Media to Power Change”. She also provides an example of an NFP which is using the new Timeline format effectively.
Similar concerns about online exposure also extend to Twitter, which is another social networking platform that is popular with NFPs. Twitter allows its users to spread ideas and share online resources via short 140 character messages. Both individuals and organisations can quickly send these messages to groups or privately. The ProBono Australia website provides a helpful guide to NFP twitter use and a working example of how it is being utilised by NFPs.
Professionals increasingly use Twitter to develop their networks and keep apprised of developments in their related fields. This practice can have great benefits for organisations, particularly if board members or employees use it to promote their work. However, there will invariably be overlap between professional and private use of Twitter and therein lies the risk. Certain ‘tweets’, although not sanctioned by, nor perhaps intended to reflect on your organisation, can linger for a long time in your organisation’s online memory. This occurs due to human error and also results from the instantaneous sharing of ideas, which may not have been well thought through. Many public figures have learnt this the hard way, for example, Australian swimmer Stephanie Rice; or US [Ex]Congressman Wiener. For this reason, it is important for boards to be aware of Twitter use by people within their organisations, and the way that it is being used. Taking a proactive approach will allow organisations to maximise their advantage from Twitter use, whilst minimising risks to their reputation.
Shying away from social media due to the perceived risks would be a shame, and essentially deny NFPs access to the vast audiences reached by utilising social media as a communication tool. Boards can ensure that this is done well by carefully considering which forums are best suited to their purposes. The discussion of Facebook and Twitter in this article provide only two examples of the many social networking platforms available. The appropriate forums will depend on the individual needs of each organisation.
Your approach to use of social media will depend on the nature and needs of your organisation, however, when considering or developing a social media policy, the following questions may be useful:
1. What is the purpose of your organisation’s use of social media, e.g., marketing, communication, networking, creating awareness of causes, fundraising, all of the above?
2. Will your organisation have its own social media account/s or will individuals within the organisation use social media for professional purposes, or both?
3. Do you wish to educate individuals in your organisation (e.g., at board or employee level), about protecting their online reputations? (Encouraging employees to protect their own online reputations can indirectly shield your organisation from potential controversy.)
4. Are you concerned about how social networking forums are being used by individuals in your organisation for both personal and professional use?
5. Who will be responsible for monitoring and updating your social media image?
6. Do you wish to provide guidelines on social media networking for professional purposes?
7. Will you provide social media training for board members and employees?
8. How will you ensure that you are sending consistent and appropriate messages? (Especially if your organisation is present on various social media platforms.)
9. Have you satisfied applicable legal obligations? E.g., accounting, industry, privacy, record keeping or other obligations that may apply to your organisation’s social media activities?
Given the accessibility of information online, there is no longer a clear demarcation between personal and professional reputations. This issue is particularly influenced by the use of social media platforms. Therefore, boards should be aware of social media trends, regardless of whether or not they adopt a formal social media policy. Social media is so widely used among the population that no-one is immune from its reach. Simple “tweeting”, “tagging” or “sharing” of information by employees or board members may have a wide and lasting reach. For this reason, taking a pro-active approach to monitoring social media usage can help your organisation to stay alert, use social media to its best advantage and minimise the risk of harming its reputation and brand.