Every day, one of your employees, potential recruits or customers is likely posting something about your company on social media or the Web. Regardless of whether the comments are accurate, they contribute to the public’s perception of your organization.
Many marketing and communications professionals are in charge of managing their companies’ reputation online, and some organizations hire third-party firms to do the job.
But HR professionals can also play an important role. They can police employees who violate established policy, for example, or take the pulse of the workforce with the goal of improving engagement, work processes or culture. They might also lead the charge in training employees on social media use so that workers can become brand ambassadors.
Policy and Legal Issues
Most experts agree that HR should have a place on any cross-functional team charged with managing a company’s brand online. Chief among HR’s responsibilities are creating firm but flexible social media policies and training employees in their use. The primary challenge comes in crafting policies that balance companies’ interests with employees’ rights to express themselves.
The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) protects the rights of employees—whether or not they’re part of a union—to engage in “concerted activity” on social media channels, which include discussions of wages, hours or working conditions on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like, says Jeffrey Tanenbaum, a partner and leader of the labor and employment practice at the San Francisco-based law firm Nixon Peabody.
Conversely, if an employee is merely complaining on his or her own about the company or its managers, that communication may not be protected by federal labor law, he says.
In light of recent cases, the NLRB has provided examples of language it considers acceptable and unlawful in social media use policies. However, “that’s not always an easy line to draw, and unless you’re an expert in parsing the language of the NLRB, you need to err on the side of caution,” Tanenbaum says.
A general guideline is to avoid policies with sweeping prohibitions on what employees can and can’t say on social media, with the knowledge that the NLRB can take actions on policy alone, not just on discipline or termination of employees for their social media activities.
Some HR practitioners believe that companies need to rethink best practices around creating social media policies in light of recent NLRB decisions. “I used to think that a simpler social media policy was the best,” says Michael VanDervort, a longtime HR manager who serves on the Society for Human Resource Management’s Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel. “However, it’s become increasingly difficult to keep them that way with all the NLRB rulings that have come out.”
Tanenbaum says it’s also important to understand that both private- and public-sector employees have protections with regard to whistle-blowing activities. “Employers need to be careful when reviewing social media sites that they’re not retaliating, or even giving the appearance of retaliating, against employees for activities that might be considered whistle-blowing,” he says.
It’s important to remember that social media can be a positive tool for your company and not merely a threat.
“I think the role of cross-departmental teams with HR, communications, marketing and legal is not just monitoring, but shifting employees from being hesitant to engage on social media to becoming brand ambassadors,” says Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, a New York City-based firm that provides executive education to HR leaders. “That means giving them clear and easy-to-understand advice on how to communicate on those channels while still respecting their rights.”
Such an objective is paying dividends at MasterCard, Meister says, where the VP of human resources joined forces with the VP of communications to create a social media listening program called the Conversation Suite. The program shines a spotlight on millions of online conversations about the MasterCard brand around the world. Relevant tweets, posts and blog comments are displayed in real time on a large LED monitor at MasterCard headquarters in Purchase, N.Y.
How to Listen In
There are a number of free and paid monitoring tools you can use to keep track of what people are saying about your organization.
Google Alerts: This free tool sends e-mail alerts any time a search matches your selected query. You can conduct searches by your company name or product brand name, for example, and receive summarized results from across the Web at desired intervals.
Search engines: Social media sites have search engines that can be used to monitor keywords or other query specifications. Technorati, for example, can scour the blogosphere for company mentions or keywords.
HootSuite: This versatile application has free and paid enterprise versions that allow you to monitor company mentions on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus and a few other networks. It also has a social analytics tool to track results of online campaigns.
Social Mention: This search platform lets you enter your company name or product brand and search across myriad social media sites, blog posts, videos, social bookmarking sites and more. You can sign up for RSS feeds or e-mail alerts.
Glassdoor: This website features anonymous reviews of companies, their CEOs, their job interviewing processes, salary reports and more. Reviews are from current and former employees. While Glassdoor can provide valuable information, keep in mind that there will likely be a mix of legitimate complaints and comments from people with an ax to grind.
RSS aggregators: These tools consolidate updates from your favorite websites or blogs, eliminating the need to visit those sites on a regular basis. Feedly, for example, aggregates content from a wide variety of online sources, enabling you to scan headlines or stories at a glance. Netvibes enables you to track social conversations, clients, competitors and more all in one dashboard and to analyze results with reporting tools.
The initiative shifts the focus from simply monitoring social media to listening to what people are saying in order to inform business decisions.
VanDervort believes that any employee using a social media platform on behalf of a company has a role in brand management, but he also says it’s important to create a division of labor.
“I think one crucial element for a cross-functional internal brand management team is that it’s able to recognize something as a potential issue and report it,” he says. If there is such an issue, it’s vital the information be placed with the right department for review and resolution. “You don’t want your external marketing team dealing with an employee issue that might be covered by NLRB rules, for example,” he says.
Social Media Training
Employee training in social media use should be a focus of HR, says Eric Schwartzman, founder and CEO of Comply Socially, a Santa Monica, Calif., company that helps employers manage social media risks and capitalize on opportunities. Research shows that the social media commentary of those lower in the organizational hierarchy tends to be viewed as more trustworthy than posts from “sanctioned” sources such as company executives or public relations representatives.
The long-running Trust Barometer survey from public relations firm Edelman proves instructive here, he says. The 2013 version, which gauged trust in institutions, industries and leaders among 31,000 respondents from 26 global markets, found that those deemed “a person like me” or “a regular employee” in organizations were considered more credible spokespeople than a CEO.
“The real mission for HR is to make sure that employees who aren’t authorized to serve as official spokespeople—but who are often perceived as such by those who read their comments on social sites—know how to use social media responsibly and effectively so they can serve as good will ambassadors,” Schwartzman says.
He recommends making social media training part of the onboarding process and says companies would be well-served to have some type of social media compliance certification for employees.
Social media training is considered essential for recruiters at Accenture, says John Campagnino, managing director of global talent acquisition for the company. “We encourage recruiters to engage in a variety of online forums and venues on topics of interest to our target audiences and to build long-term relationships with them,” he says.
Regardless of whether HR is doing some of the talking or only listening, it’s clear that social media can make or break people’s perception of your company, influencing everything from your recruiting success to attracting new clients to competing in a tough marketplace. Don’t ignore the conversation.
Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.