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Social media make it easy to create controversy, but smart practices can limit the risk

Technology usually helps us function by making daily tasks easier, safer, more efficient, and so on. But sometimes a technology comes along that doesn’t simply improve the way we do something, it actually creates a new type of behaviour. I think this is the case with online social networking, which allows individuals to broadcast to mass audiences in a way that wasn’t available in the past. The question remains, however, as to whether this activity makes life any easier! Some have certainly found it just causes them trouble.

Nowadays, when I think of social networking, I think of Twitter, mainly because of its simplicity and inclusiveness. It’s easy to use, and because of that, people have come up with countless functions for it. But it doesn’t try to be everything for everyone; in fact, it encourages users to go elsewhere—to blogs, news sites, games and entertainment—and then come back for more.

Still, its ease of use can deceive users into false confidence, and lead people to say and do things they might not otherwise, with real—and sometimes legal—consequences.

Consider this quote: “I was surprised about the controversy, but I guess you never know who’s watching. … It’s ridiculous that it would become such a big deal, but you’re a professional so you still have to watch what you say.” Any professional could have said this after her or his first online faux pas. This was a football player with the Canadian Football League.

Like many other businesses, the CFL and its teams consider Twitter a valuable marketing tool, and encourage players to get online and engage with fans, but they understand—to some extent—the risk of players making inappropriate tweets. The quote above refers to Rob Murphy, a player with the Toronto Argonauts, who faced fines for tweets (now deleted) in which he mentioned “smelling foreigners” at Union Station and riding the train through “Frenchland”. Murphy insisted he made the comments in jest, but the league and his team fined him anyway, under its “social media policy”. Like any business, the CFL has to make it clear to customers that it doesn’t condone racism and discrimination, whether joking or serious.

And today I came across the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Twitter policy. This type of policy is important for any type of business, from professional sport leagues to government agencies, regardless of the number of employees. It’s also a good idea to train employees on the policy, and it’s imperative to apply the policy consistently.

The CFL’s Twitter story goes to show you that all types of businesses are discovering new ways to use social media to promote themselves, but the media are still too new to fully understand, and too amorphous to control. Twitter and other social media allow people to behave in new ways, but they don’t set out rules to limit the new behaviour. That’s up to the users.

Interestingly, despite Murphy’s questionable tweets, his popularity on Twitter has increased significantly since he posted them. That shouldn’t be too surprising: controversy can be a valuable tool to lure readers—just look at the business of gossip—but it’s probably not a great policy for the majority of businesses!

What do you think? Do you have a social media policy? Have you punished or warned any employee for contravening it?

Adam Gorley
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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