How are you coping with the changing influence of the ‘net’?

01 January 2014, at 12:00am

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

THE internet is a wonderful thing but, like most potent vehicles, it needs handling with respect!

The recent furore about the personal battle between an advertising magnate and a TV celebrity cook has reached almost fictional proportions and, while the media may be having a field day, it provides a salutary lesson that e-mail can be a double-edged sword.

How many of us have inadvertently managed to include someone who shouldn’t have been included in an e-mail? How many of us have intimate knowledge of that sinking feeling that recognises that the casual pressing of the “reply all” icon may just have precipitated World War III?

Of course, as our media couple know all too well, once the message has been digitally squirted into the ether, not only can you not get it back but it’s conveniently packaged to be bounced around in all the wrong places.

This goes some way to explaining why most companies have a section, or maybe just a clause, in their employment contracts delineating what is and what isn’t acceptable internet behaviour from employees.

Moving on

Things have moved on in many companies with access to the internet being readily available to most employees, not just for e-mail but also for on-line searching and other usage, but it’s clear that there is a generational gap between those who use the internet as their main form of communication, whether by social media, e-mail or other messaging options, and those whose life is more attuned to the telephone.

Intriguingly, the generation which drove the expansion of Facebook is now, gradually, abandoning it in favour of a wider choice of alternative social media sites and, in many cases, people have set up their own. The nature of social media is that it gathers together like-minded people with the intention, and often the automated function, of sharing data regardless of whether that is for a serious or more frivolous purpose.

Indeed. the nature of Twitter and other such sites is for the world, or at least everyone in that individual’s world, to see the sagacity of their individual wisdom and wit within the perpetual challenge of abbreviating something worth saying into a digital version of shorthand. 

With social media, everyone can be both an author and a pundit and, like Wikipedia, there is no mechanism to separate truth from fiction. This can be a serious problem when employees tweet or post their views on a social media site.

Very often, there is no corporate mechanism to police such engagement with the wider public, and any subsequent checking will be too late if an employee’s version of the truth appears in any form that associates his or her views with the employer.

Often, the employer may feel that the views expressed may be different from the company line or even that the message is potentially damaging to its brand values or company ethos. It’s surprising how many employees have little or no knowledge of the ethos of the company for which they work.

Irretrievably associated

Over and above this issue, employees can sometimes irretrievably be associated with the company for which they work, particularly so if their work requires them to be publically recognised, on occasion, as being a representative of that company.

Even though they may tweet in their own time from the comfort of their own kitchen, the end result will very often be indistinguishable in the mind of the reader from other communications normally seen from that employee when on company business.

For many, the fear is that something tweeted or e-mailed might be seen as being borderline libellous but that gradation doesn’t exist – it either is or isn’t libellous – and the courts would be likely to take the view that, if the intention of the author was for the reader to think less of the subject(s), that intention would be more important than the words used.

Misuse of information 

Moreover, if the communication contains personal comments, even if they might not be interpreted as being defamatory, this may be a misuse of personal information under article eight of the Human Rights Act, which is concerned with protecting private life.

Given the nature of social media, this is a potential minefield for companies big and small. If tweets cannot be retrieved, there is only the option of stopping further tweets but this is clearly akin to bolting horses and closing the gate. The real problem is that tweets are a form of publication and while each retweet is separately actionable, the presumption in law is that tweets are expected to be retweeted and therefore republished so the responsibility for this lies with the original author.

Should this happen in your business, the immediate action, following a timely arrest of the situation, would be to issue a rapid apology and a retraction of any such message rather than any attempt to brazen it out. 

Of course, you may have some provision in your employment contracts that makes this a punishable offence but the real problems lie in two areas: first, the individuals have to understand that social media is not a fluffy never-never land but an open communication vehicle where all the same rules of libel and public damage exist; and, second, that each individual needs to take ownership of the brand values and execution of public relations for the company which employs them.

We have spent the last decade or more in encouraging companies to empower their employees but we need, with some urgency, to make the limits and boundaries of that empowerment clear for all employees while, simultaneously, encouraging a far higher degree of ownership of corporate ethos.

If any of us is unclear about the changing influence the internet is having on our business lives we should heed the salutary tale of a friend whose recruitment business has been almost driven out of existence by the power of LinkedIn which offers all its subscribers the opportunity to search, contact and compare possible candidates for vacant positions completely free.

In a recent survey of employers, the first tool they used to compare candidates was Facebook to see what kind of information each candidate had, perhaps naïvely, posted about him or herself. Ibiza 2011 may seem a distant memory for many of us but it lives on in vivid colour on the internet!