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The hidden social media dangers for all businesses

Everyone is telling you to use social media – but who’s telling you to be careful?

Despite what some may suggest, social media is not all that new. As far as I’m concerned, it’s old – very old. News groups, email boards, forums, shout-out and guest boxes, rating, review and comment systems etc. You can see where today’s social media originates from.

And yet, despite it maturing slowly over time, and having plenty of users and uses, I’m still not seeing many people waving a warning flag, violently pointing to the danger signs or trying to help people see the potentially massive holes that social media has for you, your staff, your company and your reputation.

*puts on best old-sea-dog voice*
There be dangers in social media!

Sources of risk:

Though we can slice and dice this numerous ways, I think sticking to broad and clear labels saves a lot of confusion. I’m sure you can work out the finer details and individual items based on the following…

Yourself and employees
Often one of the greatest assets, you or your staff can also be one of the biggest liabilities. From accidentally letting slip confidential information, through to intentional leaks, or silly slipups, mistypes or plain old bad behaviour that calls your company or industry into disrepute.

There’s nothing like a scorned employee – and social platforms can be a prime way to lash out at you for revenge. Accidents are unlikely, if it’s an ex-employee, it’s going to be intentional.

Clients, customers and consumers
Straight from the horse’s mouth – people put a lot of weight on what current and pre-existing customers or clients say about you, your services or your products. Unhappy consumers making bad reviews, publicly complain or generally make a stink can cause you to lose new business.

Some of you may have competitors that are happy to play dirty. They may create fake profiles, post false complaints or leave bad reviews. In extreme cases they may even attempt to impersonate staff or misrepresent your company.

Reputation hitmen
It’s a dirty little secret – but there are those out there that have practiced and developed ways to damage the reputation and social presence. These don’t tend to be random; they are usually hired to do the dirty deed. The problem is they won’t be amateurish about it, and are harder to spot.

A completely different class of problem is hackers. There are some that use social media as an attack vector. They may harvest information from publicly accessible information on profiles etc. Then they attempt impersonate other staff, or make various identity claims in an effort to obtain access credentials or details.

The media
Sometimes things create a stink, and there seems to be nothing that attracts the media like a bad smell. If you think having a bunch of people kicking you on Twitter is bad, wait until some reporter gets a whiff of things!

Trolls, flamers and crusaders
It happens, more often than you may realise – absolute strangers may come along and cause various types of trouble. Topics may become confused, foul language and insults appear, attempts to get others involved or blow things out of proportion. Suddenly your workload has become larger and harder, and you will be tempted to say or do stupid things that could worsen the situation or create a whole new one.

Types of damage:

There’s no shortage of ways your reputation may be harmed, or your social interactions hindered. Rather than trying to list them all (and make you read them all), I’ll generalise them a little. The broader types of damage include…

Though not necessarily a danger, these can get out of hand and cause you problems. Worse yet, they have a nasty habit of being bandied around as ‘fact’. Though these usually don’t cause harm per-se, they may still impede your efforts and require resources to handle. They also have a nasty habit of reappearing or being brought up at the worst possible time.

From silly typos and bad spelling, through to things that should never (ever!) have been written – you or your staff may post or publish something that shouldn’t have been. Sure you can Edit it or Delete it. Unfortunately it may already have been seen and screen grabbed, caught and posted elsewhere, crawled, indexed and cached etc. Those silly little mistakes you got rid of may still come back and bite you. Worse yet, it may end up looking like a cover-up!

It happens – people get the wrong end of the stick, the wrong thing is said at the wrong time, or to the wrong person, ambiguous wording is used, too much is read from what is posted, not enough thought is applied to what is said, a mistype or spelling issue can result in a different meaning etc.
No matter the cause, someone will get upset over it.

Sometimes people will say, do or post stuff that they think is acceptable – with no regard for people’s sensibilities. Those inane comments, silly pictures or (supposedly) witty remarks may well turn out to be very unfunny and not so trivial in the future.

Misguided behaviour
A situation, issue or problem may be portrayed different from the actuality. This may result in people responding in ways that aren’t quite appropriate or correct. In other cases, staff may simply think they are doing the right thing, but are doing anything but the right thing. These good intentions may end up causing all sorts of problems.

Poor and unprofessional conduct, or generally unacceptable antics and behaviour can be a nightmare to deal with. There’s no telling how people may react. It could be beneficial, it could be made useful, or it could a major clean-up operation.

Let’s face it – most corporations and companies have at least a little dirty laundry. Having it in public view can be a highly unpleasant experience, and sometimes, those stains just won’t come out.

Treating others poorly may come back to bite you – and bite you hard! Failing to meet your obligations is bad enough – adding insult to the injury is far worse. Others seeing such mistreatment may be put off. Worse yet, they may talk about it to others, causing even more harm to your reputation.

The truth can hurt – and having it shouted out in public can hurt a whole lot more. Having dissatisfied customers/clients that post their concerns and complaints in public can cause some harm. Worse yet, there is a niche industry that seems to thrive on such issues.

Lies and fakes
This is unfortunately far more common that anyone would like – and comes in all shapes and sizes. You’re looking at poor ratings and bad reviews, through to false complaints, defamation and character assassination.

One of the nastier hazards, it’s possible that others may pretend to be you, an employee or a representative – and then conduct themselves in an unpleasant manner, or post damaging comments/content.

Called out
It doesn’t matter if it’s done in a polite and professional manner, or by someone behaving like a 10 year old who’s eaten too much sherbet – no one wants to be called out, especially publicly! I can’t think of much worse than some smart-alec poking holes, picking fault, undermining your efforts or making you look stupid. (Yes, I laughed evilly whilst typing that one up :D)

Some industries have strict regulations regarding media and communications. It’s entirely possible for a post to be made with content that falls short of such requirements, and leave your company exposed to punitive repercussions.

This is one of my favourites, when someone sends a communication to the wrong person(s), or a tweet instead of a direct message. This can cause all sorts of holy hell, especially if it’s sensitive data or information that is then publicised.

Sometimes we simply make things worse. What was originally an issue of one size can easily become a larger issue due to poor responses, unprofessional conduct, miscommunication, going on the attack or any number of the other items mentioned.

Compounding it all:

As if there weren’t enough sources or types of damage – it can get worse. Just look at these additional complications…

Private to public
The standard social media risk, the transition from private to public. Dealing with complaints, employee concerns and competitors can be difficult enough. Having the doors flung open and it playing out in front of an audience – one that may judge against you – it can get a darn sight worse.

Loss of control
Aside from the resource costs and potential damages – one of the harder to deal with aspects is the general lack of control you end up with. It can feel like trying to stem an avalanche with a teaspoon. This is especially true with public and third party platforms.

Out of proportion
The immediate thought here is the press – well known for taking a grain of salt and turning it into Sodom and Gomorrah. That said, the public has a big old nasty streak too, and you may find even the smallest infraction being blown out of proportion.

You may have a topic and a goal. You may even have a plan. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that anyone will follow it once it’s out there. Others may take it in a different direction, or usurp control of the conversation. All of a sudden, your plans are useless and your post is at full steam in the wrong direction, driven by someone else.

People can be pretty strange, and if we’re completely honest – kind of scary. It’s amazing how even the most innocent, most well intentioned thing can be taken hold of and twisted into something dirty or wrong. Hashtags can be misread (Blackberry and #rimjobs), or your campaign can be turned against you (McD Stories).

Carved in electrons
Possibly one of the worst factors to consider is that, in many cases, what happens online becomes a matter of record. Though the general internet attention span may not be much more developed than that of plankton – the internet has a very long and exact memory. Screen shots, archives and caches… things may stick around far longer than you’d like.

Open season
Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, you discover someone has not only stuck a pair of antlers on your head, they’ve painted a bullseye on your backside – and it seems everyone is out with a rifle and looking right at you. Even though the infraction seemed small, harmless and happened two weeks ago – disgruntled people have created profiles just so they can post snarky comments about you and your company.

Scared? You should be!

Okay – I’m lying. You don’t have to be scared – but you should be cautious.
The above is merely a collection of warnings and worst case scenarios. Most people and businesses manage to use social media without killing their reputation, or being randomly trolled by people with far too much time on their hands.

The truth is that social platforms and communities offer many advantages and benefits – but it pays to be mindful. So while you sit there figuring how you are going to win over your audience, sway influencers and generate some links… keep the above in mind.

by Roger Rogerson