Embarrassed From Afar: Remote Workers and Reputational Damage

The following is an excerpt from The Lustigman Firm's Jonathan I. Ezor's new free e-book Shooting From the Hip: Managing the Risks of Portable Computing and Smartphones in Your Business. The complete e-book can be read and downloaded in both PDF and Mobipocket/Kindle formats at http://www.mobilerisk.com.

One unfortunate "side effect" of the interconnectedness of organizations with the rest of the world has been a substantial rise in the number and severity of Internet-related business embarrassments. As far back as 1997, Nielsen Media disclosed that workers at some of the largest American companies "made 13,000 workplace visits to the Penthouse magazine Web site during a single month." In just a few of the many more recent examples, the CEO of Countrywide Financial was reported in June 2008 as having e-mailed a distressed borrower that his request for help was "disgusting" and "unbelievable," and a blogger discovered and reported in January 2009 that a business development manager at Belkin International, Inc. was offering to pay for good reviews of its product on Amazon.com and other retailers. (Stephen J. Dubner's May 8, 2008 New York Times Freakonomics column on e-mail mistakes solicited 173 responses from readers, many telling their own horror stories.) Managers aren't the only employees whose online activities can cause embarrassment; Microsoft fired temp worker (and blogger) Michael Hanscom in October 2003 after Hanscom posted a photo he'd taken of Apple Macs on a Microsoft loading dock, then was further embarrassed by Hanscom's own publicizing the event. In another incident recounted in a May 2009 BusinessWeek.com article on Twitter policies for business, an ad agency executive whose potential client had learned that its competitor was being wooed by the agency, via a Twitter posting from an agency employee.

Nor is the problem limited to the United States; Virgin Atlantic Airways fired 19 employees in October 2008 for criticizing management and customers, and in March 2009, Australian telco Telstra fired an employee after it was discovered that he had been posting to Twitter as "StephenConroy," satirizing Australia's Communications Minister of that name and other political figures as well as Telstra itself. Even planned marketing efforts can cause problems; an overzealous e-mail campaign, or one done without awareness of how unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail is viewed by many recipients, can land the company on a public block list of "spammers," possibly even leading to its non-marketing e-mails being at least temporarily rejected by major ISPs (as happened to Yahoo! Stores in 2002).

While training and awareness can at least reduce the frequency of these types of incidents, technical controls may be more effective. A company can block some or all Web-based e-mail, blogging and social media sites for its employees, configure e-mail programs to turn off auto-fill addresses (which can lead to mis-addressed e-mails) and otherwise monitors online behavior. Once more, however, these types of efforts are difficult or impossible once the employees leave the internal network for home or travel, taking their computers and smartphones (and the company's reputation) with them.

One well-publicized situation involved a marketing specialist for the Ketchum agency, traveling to Memphis to give a presentation on digital media to FedEx employees. On landing in Memphis, the specialist posted to his Twitter account the following message:

True confession but I'm in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say "I would die if I had to live here!"

(According to the specialist's own follow up blog entry, the Twitter post "was the emotional response to a run in I had with an intolerant individual.")

Within a few hours, Internet PR expert Peter Shankman had discovered and blogged about the incident and the response from an employee at FedEx, who saw the Twitter post and sent a letter including the following to both FedEx executives and the marketer's own managers:

If I interpret your post correctly, these are your comments about Memphis a few hours after arriving in the global headquarters city of one of your key and lucrative clients, and the home of arguably one of the most important entrepreneurs in the history of business, FedEx founder Fred Smith.

Many of my peers and I feel this is inappropriate. We do not know the total millions of dollars FedEx Corporation pays Ketchum annually for the valuable and important work your company does for us around the globe. We are confident however, it is enough to expect a greater level of respect and awareness from someone in your position as a vice president at a major global player in your industry. A hazard of social networking is people will read what you write....[W]ith all due respect, to continue the context of your post; true confession: many of my peers and I don't see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do in Employee Communications.

The particular challenge of social networking sites/services like Twitter and Facebook is that they encourage a more personal, less professional style of communication than blogging or even e-mail. When that is coupled with being away from the professional influence of the office and when employees may post quick thoughts to Twitter and Facebook from their smartphones (there are Twitter apps for the iPhone, PalmOS, Windows Mobile and even BlackBerry, and users may "tweet" directly from their cellphones using SMS text messages), the chance for posts by employees that can embarrass the organization is significantly increased.

Unless the organization is going to establish (and try to enforce) an absolute ban on employees' identifying themselves with the company online (difficult or impossible, particularly when a return e-mail address may show the company's domain name), the best practice to minimize these problems is awareness. Regular training sessions, coupled with publicizing "worst practices" of other organizations (perhaps using some of the stories mentioned above), can at least sensitize employees to the possible risks both to the company's reputation and even their own continued employment. Your firm may also designate one or more employees to officially represent the company in social networking communities and blogs, providing real value and information to customers, clients and the public while avoiding off-brand and embarrassing posts to go out under the company's name. You should keep watch on where and how your company name appears online, using free services like Google Alerts to watch sites and blogs, Twilert for Twitter, and similar (and constantly evolving) resources for other social media and online communities. Remember too to have a damage control plan to address if (or when) an unwanted blog post or tweet from your company appears online, so you aren't forced to improvise when quick action may be needed.

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