by Martin Thomas, marketing consultant, trainer and author of The Financial Times Guide to Social Media Strategy: Boost your business, manage risk and develop your personal brand, out now.
Keeping up with the Kardashians is a global phenomenon. The high watermark of what many consider to be our over-sharing culture. Inspired by Kim and her tribe, a generation of social media celebrities has emerged characterised by an apparent willingness to share their every waking moment with an eager audience of online fans.
This disinhibited sharing behaviour has been embraced by the wider, social media-using public in a blizzard of selfies, confessional tweets and narcissistic Facebook posts. It has created a new set of challenges for businesses. According to the global head of privacy and information management for a major US bank, ‘The biggest risk for me is our employees disclosing information about our clients on social media. This risk is especially prevalent given the growing presence of millennials in the workplace because they are accustomed to sharing personal information and many of their current activities over social media. At times, there is over-disclosure of their personal life moments, which can bleed over into their professional life moments, and we need those to be confidential.’
It is dangerous to assume that this is simply a problem with the younger generation in the workplace. Every employee with a smartphone represents a risk. The intimate nature of social media tends to confuse people into thinking that they are simply having a private conversation or indulging in a bit of friendly ‘banter’ with their friends and colleagues, rather than sharing their opinions in a public forum. Supermarket staff and airline cabin crew have been dismissed for describing customers and passengers in derogatory terms on Facebook, sports stars censured for sharing confidential information about tactics and line-ups and teachers sanctioned for sharing posts on their ‘colourful’ social and private lives that are discovered by students and parents.
Organisations have a duty of care to all of their employees to ensure that they understand fully the dangers of over-sharing and disinhibited comment. It requires a mix of training and sanctions where clear rules about the disclosure of information are breached. Usually, a friendly reminder about the consequences of over-sharing – the damage it can cause to the reputation of the organisation and the individual is sufficient.
The warnings also need to be heeded by senior management, especially those in leadership positions within financially regulated companies. As Elon Musk discovered recently to his cost – he and Tesla were fined $40m by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) for a rogue tweet in which he shared inaccurate information about the company’s financial plans – there are strict rules imposed by regulatory bodies about the disclosure of price sensitive information. Even the most innocent post of tweet by a senior manager to their social media followers – such as alluding to a forthcoming investment announcement – before it is shared with the general public through official corporate channels, can technically be in breach of the rules. To quote one of the key conclusions in a report undertaken by social media security and compliance specialists Nexgate, ‘Executive participation in social media can have a tremendous upside for business, but compliance professionals need to educate these executives and deploy controls to catch inadvertent mistakes’. It can be helpful for executive teams to agree subject are about which they will never comment, such as investment decisions, potential partnerships (even praising the performance of a potential partner could be a risk), changes to company structures and manpower.