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Tech Talk: Build trust and keep a crisis out of social media

One recent morning I answered the phone and on the other end of the line I could barely make out a whisper. My ears strained to hear as my client contact said, “Something’s happening. All of our managers were sent out to our retail locations this morning, and I need to know why. Where can I find it on Twitter or whatever.”

It hit me that the Internet has usurped companies’ own employees in terms of who gets the news first these days. And guess what? Employees don’t even expect to hear about company news from management anymore.

They’re looking for the fastest-breaking, most authentic story online, because they know that even if they do get an announcement, what they hear internally will be wordsmithed to toe the company line. Employees also care about how their company news “hits” their friends, families and acquaintances online. They determine their own feelings about company announcements in the context of their social community.

Wanting to be a good vendor and friend, I sent my contact several social media monitoring tools (all free, of course) so she could get the real story. Then I logged onto Twitter and Jodange W3 to wait for the story to unfold. Suspense was in the air for both of us.

While we waited for the first blips of news to come in on our monitors, I thought about company executives and how they used to be able to release news on their own timetable. And didn’t the whole company play for the same team at one point in history?

Feel like the president

As an executive, is this scenario manageable? Think about it: Employees at almost every level expect instant online communication as though they were all presidents of the company.

Social media advocates tout that all it takes for your employees to feel like the president is a quick tweet to update them — 140 characters and you’re done! But that can be either the solution or the beginning of a really huge information management issue.

There’s not a lot of space for telling the back story behind issues or the implications of the decision being made in 140 characters. Sure, you can link to a Web page with more information, but that’s only if you have time to write more information. The approval process for a larger piece of written information can take several days or weeks.

Are employees now part of the public?

It really depends on how loyal the employees are to the company. Yes, employees, I’m talking to you. If you’re contrarian and looking to spread rumors on the Internet, then yes, you’ll be informed later and later in the news cycle, until you’re just one of the public.

You’re in it together, remember? The company needs you and vice versa. Try to behave as though you own the company — if you want to be treated like the president, then act like you are.

Too much transparency?

Employees have been vocal about their right to information to the point where management is more transparent than any time in history.

At the same time, employees have the most readily available public platform for distributing information in history. It’s kind of like employees have a lit match in one hand and a stick of dynamite in the other, with instructions from management simply stating, “Please don’t put the two together.”

Company leadership and employees need to come together during a news crisis and have a clear agreement that they are on the same side. Some companies have tried to enforce a social media policy, which is a set of legally binding agreements about how employees use social media.

It’s a decent idea for management, albeit a little off-putting for employees.

Try talking about it — not online — and make some ground rules. Build trust. Then go forward together.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a Web consulting firm in Baltimore. Her e-mail address is marci@mdvinteractive.com. Follow her on Twitter, @marcidevries.

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