Social media hysteria part 2…

I recently Chaired the HR and Harnessing the Power of Social Media session at the CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester where Neil Morrison, Group HR Director for Random House and Matthew Hanwell, HR Director, Community & Social Media for Nokia were sharing their thoughts around the opportunity presented by social media.  The session was well received but has caused a bit of debate, some of it ill informed such as this one from XPertHR’s John Read called “Social Media Policies are not Stupid. Here’s why.  It seems that john is not alone in this view but I particularly took issue with his stance and was compelled to write this blog in response.

Most of the fear around social media in organisations comes from those who do not understand – and that means actively use – social media.  I totally disagree with John’s analysis which comes from an uninformed point of view.  And a legal view is not necessarily an informed one.

Social media has not suddenly unlocked a new human “Stupid” genome.  All the threats he mentions including confidential information leakage and defamatory statements are all possible in existing media.  We already have policies coming out of our ears to deal with behaviour in the workplace.  If the law is such an ass that it needs a separate policy to remind people they cant say “F*** You” on social media when its already covered in general behaviour then the law needs to have a word with itself.  Which it probably does.

I thought this statement, taken from a comment by a John Eccleston on the blog was particularly wide of the mark:

“Also, letters and phone calls do not have the same potential as social media to cause long-lasting, broadcast brand damage. Once written, a tweet or a wall post can be around the world in seconds – leaving a digital footprint that can be impossible to erase. An ill-considered social media activity can cause far more harm than a bit of old media – this deserves to be reflected in how employers handle it.”

Sorry John (Eccleston) but this is simply not true.  Tweets may have greater reach, but there is only so much damage you can do in 140 characters.  And they disappear very quickly.  Compare that to letters, faxes, emails and phone calls – often rolled out in legal cases.  Try and find a recorded phone conversation, or an email or a letter you wrote 12 months ago.  Not that difficult actually.  Now do the same with a tweet.

Neil wasn’t suggesting that we ignore it – he was suggesting we embrace it.  He was suggesting we have a conversation with our fellow employees and take an adult, realistic approach.  He can do this because he is informed.  And he is informed because he is immersed in social media himself unlike most of the HR, media and legal commentators we hear from regularly.  As a result of his informed positon he has a realistic grasp of the risks.

Too many HR professionals are tackling this subject when they themselves are not involved in social media, and instead are being advised by lawyers or taking guidance from commentators who are similarly ignorant.  Fanning the flames of fear around the subject is too easy and serves only to drive fees for lawyers, column inches/unique visits for journalists and the day job for HR.

I have searched the social media landscape for John and have come up with little evidence that he is active in social media.  He appears to have 2 linkedin profiles both of which are inactive and I can’t find him on twitter at all, unless he has an anonymous profile.  One thing I do know about this social stuff is that unless you are actively immersed in it, you cannot fully understand it fully.  And unless I’m mistaken, John is not immersed.  Which means he is not engaging with the audience around which this debate centres, on the very tools which he is commenting about.

My final point would be that if you look back, the number of CEO’s and Exec team members who have brought a company into disrepute FAR outweighs the number of rank and file employees who have done so.  As I said at the conference in my closing comments, ultimately, this is less about social media and more about authenticity.   It’s really about an organisations ability to become more comfortable with transparency, openness and trust.


Fair play to John Read he has come back to me and asked that I reconsider my verdict on him being ill informed.  On reflection, he is right to say that he is very informed on the legal issues – much more so than me obviously!


  1. Totally agree with what you say – we need to remind people that social media has a broad reach, but we don’t have a separate phone policy, email policy, writing on paper policy!

    That said, people who work for others and tweet/do social media for a living do need some guidelines about what is appropriate for the particular brand – have produced many of those and found them helpful. These are not lists of forbidden things, but things to consider.


    1. Thanks for commenting Annabel. Good point about the outsourced folk but I think this will stop at some point. Outsourcing the ‘conversation’ long term doesnt work and is an illustration that we still dont get it. Its not like outsourcing web content. Ultimately, organisations need to be ‘social’ throughout so that everyone on the organisation, or many at least, are having the conversation with customers etc not just a ‘chosen one’!


  2. Hi Gareth,

    Thanks for adding to the discussion and linking to my blog – it’s a good debate. But the quote you used is not from me – it was from someone commenting on my blog. Would be grateful if you could clarify that!

    I am not a big twitter used myself, no, although I do a lot in my job – I was posting a legal perspective, as that’s my field. I was merely engaging in the debate from my experience in law.




    1. Hi John – oops! Yes. Comment layout a bit confusing there but acknowledged, sorry about that. I read the header as the name to associate, not the footer! I think you should up your personal engagement i really do. Thanks for the debate and for correcting me!


  3. I’d add that this debate seems to have generated some strong feelings. I am not “immersed” in social media in the same way that many others – such as you and Neil – are. However, I’ve seen and reported on Tribunal cases where the employer’s failure to address social media issues properly has resulted in avoidable liability. I think Googling me to ascertain how “informed” I am is a bit much – I’m merely talking about the legal position.




    1. My point here John is that those same tribunal cases could probably be avoided if a more mature, less sensationalist approach was taken by organisations and the HR folk inside them. Thats not to say they are totally avoidable because they are not. But I think the coverage on this issue could be better if those people with very valid views from the different angles – such as legal like yourself – had a deeper immersion in social. Your call obviously, but my recommendation would be to get more involved. There are few in the legal profession or with an appreciation of the legal issues who have.


      1. I take your point. We come across this from opposite ends of the spectrum, but just as I don’t think you need to be a lawyer to have a view on legal matters, nor do I think that I need to immerse myself in social media to understand the problems it can cause for employers.

        I do, however, agree that, without educating your workforce as to how they can use tools like social media responsibly and productively, you’re not doing things the right way.


  4. Good post Gareth. clearly a scaremonger with limited evidence of wrong doing by the evil tweeters. no policy. the comms policy usualy covers it all.extend that and forget a new panic policy. Dated view, but no surprise there


    1. Spread the word! Thanks for the comment – I really would like to see a greater shift to considering the positives and the opportunity and less debate around the fears.


  5. I believe that HR SHOULD introduce a social media policy.

    A policy of allowing employees to use social media freely so that they can reap the benefits from the unlimited array of knowledge, collaboration, networking, learning and relationship-building that it offers.


    1. There you go folks. Callum has written the fullest and most comprehensive policy right there:

      “Use social media freely so that they can reap the benefits from the unlimited array of knowledge, collaboration, networking, learning and relationship-building that it offers.”

      Well done Callum. Are you some kind of Digital Strategist??! 😉


  6. Thanks for the correction Gareth (although it’s “Eccleston”!) – the header does indeed look like the footer on our comments section. It’s upsetting that Bill has felt the need to insult me here and on Neil’s blog – I thought this was an interesting debate worth joining, hence my blog in the first place.


  7. True Gareth, but I think we are a fair way from that. If we create a world where all employee’s speak for the brand then we will have a thousand Gerald Ratner moments a day.

    Some people are not good at social nuance (on or off line), some really do hate their job and their boss, some people just like to rant about stuff online but are quite sweet in person. We have a long way to go before the office junior can tweet for and on behalf of the brand!

    I would love to do the work around values and culture that would support it – already working to integrate HR and marketing in a way that makes this easier but it may be it takes a new generation of employers to get here – I can’t see this being embraced across the board very quickly.

    Many ordinary UK employees routinely make remark on facebook that could be viewed as racists, sexist, homophobic, isamophobic,,etc. It would be a rare brand that wanted this attached to them in an unfettered way (Think Gaultier for example) and a rare HR department that felt comfortable with this given all the equality issues that bring into play.

    In a perfect world we would navigate these issues with ease and charm – but we don’t have that world. Management has historically been more about control than planning for quality and most organisations couldnt handle this. Meanwhile we are exploring twitter company handbooks (on twitter, not about it), you tube based admin systems. Why not? It’s out there. It’s good to explore (if you are allowed to!)

    One of my sons works in a media related company – they are blocked off from hearing internet radio while they work (they have headsets) so he couldn’t hear a broadcast I did recently – which might have had some interesting concepts for some of his brands. The other works in an organisation that blocks facebook, twitter and just about everything else. He gets it all on his phone anyway – but they are not going to license anyway to speak to their brand, never mind for it!



    1. Totally agree – we are a long way from it but it will come. As generations pass – and it will be generationally – we become more comfortable within business to speak more openly. You only have to look at the past 80 years or so to see that. And the pace of change will speed up so it wont take another 80 years to achieve the same benchmark difference.

      The banning/control one is understandable but futile. As you correctly point out – people are accessing this on the mobile and mobile is going to be even more significant in the very near future. So it cannot be ignored. And i dont mean that every person in the company will tweet on behalf of the brand – but their tweets will inevitably resonate with the brand if they in anyway identify themselves. If the company has great engagement then this can be very powerful. If not, then there is an engagement problem, not a social media problem. Simply banning someone from social media access isn’t the way forward.

      We will always have racist and sexist commentators but again, in my view, whereas before these people kept their views and thoughts out of sight (allowing them to hide in organisations) by posting such stuff they then become identified and we can do something about them if necessary.

      Great debate!


  8. I’m loving this debate Gareth and at first glance was wholly in your camp after reading your post. However, having read John Reed’s original piece I can’t help feeling you have let your emotions run away with you a little on this. I found John Reed’s post pretty balanced to be fair, as were his additional comments.

    I hate the way that social media policies are generally dropped down on an unsuspecting workforce solely as a means of managing risk. I have read far too many negative and over complicated social media polices in my time.

    Acceptable IT use and email policies acknowledge the value if using these tools in business and set out rules to manage risk. It would be entirely appropriate to simply add the words ‘social media’ to these policies and most of what you need to achieve from legal perspective is covered. I also think that adding the same two words to existing Code of Conduct and Conflict of Interest policies is also enough to cover the risk side of this debate.

    However this ignores the fact that the introduction of a social media policy could be a very positive way to empower your people to use their own favoured channels to become brand advocates. Not is a cynical, contrived way of course (you know me better than that!) but to echo your own words, in a way that demonstrates an organisation’s comfort and commitment to being transparent, open and trustworthy.

    I have met several bloggers in recent jobs who love to engage in industry related debate on their blogs but are too scared to identify themselves as members of staff because they are afraid they may be doing something wrong. What a missed opportunity! A well written Social Media policy could have empowered them years ago – not to speak for the company but to speak for the industry in such a way that benefits their own professional reputation and that of their employer.

    The one thing I don’t buy is the contention that you have to be active in social media to understand the risks. This may well apply to anyone thinking of using social media for business purposes. For sure you need to be in it to understand how to do it properly. We see car crash marketing on Twitter and Facebook every day because too many Marketing people have no idea what they’re doing.

    However when it comes to rules and regulations, I don’t expect my law makers to have done a stretch in Belmarsh to prove they understand the difference between right and wrong…

    Keep up the great work!


    1. Hi Jon! Of course I have – thats the passion in me ;). I hear you and agree with your view that the “introduction of a social media policy could be a very positive way to empower your people to use their own favoured channels to become brand advocates.”

      Absolutely, but we will never get there if we continue to focus on the negative/risks and not the opportunity. And for now, the voices are calling for ‘comprehensive policies’ that go way beyond the addition of two words to an existing policy and focus on what you shouldn’t say or do. In my mind both Neil and Matthew were doing exactly what you advocate – introducing Social Media use positively so as to reap the positive benefits. What they were saying was that they didn’t need a comprehensive list of dont’s to achieve this.

      Your comment about bloggers is a classic. The fact that they were blogging without identifying themselves has nothing to do with a social media policy – they had already made that call because they felt, rightly or wrongly that it was not culturally acceptable to do so. A statement from the company around the subject could well have changed this – but a simple statement about the landscape but referencing back to acceptable behaviours is all that is needed surely?

      This is what Neil and others are doing and it is working for them yet they are ridiculed or called out for it by others who have not done anything yet, or who are busy writing comprehensive policies who are not active on social media themselves.

      And to that point I do think you need to be active in it to understand it – but not just the risks!!! The opportunity!!! THAT is where the blindness is! I could write the rule book on the risks – i dont need a lawyer to help me speculate what could go wrong!

      Thanks for joining in the debate – great as ever. One for our next coffee catch up methinks 😉


  9. Oh, I don’t know – 140 characters offer plenty of scope for causing damage. You just need to be pithy.

    Gareth: ‘garbage’ is a bit strong – and a bit wrong. Social media activity does not always disappear ‘very quickly’. (NB – I did not refer solely to tweets, although you have chosen to focus on them.)

    A person’s social media activity – whether it’s a Facebook wall post, a blog post, a tweet – can be captured for posterity should somebody desire. Even an honest retweet (not to mention malevolent cacheing and screen-grabbing of blogs or wall posts) can mean that communication is subsequently out of the hands of original writer, and that’s where things can spiral. That’s the digital footprint that can’t be erased. Once it’s out there, it can be difficult to get it back.

    Surely I don’t need to provide examples where it’s caused headaches for major brands, do I? Look for what happened to Cornetto on Friday if you want a reminder. And these are the reasons why, for some organisations, it makes far more sense to have some sort of social media policy than not to have one. It covers their backs – and this can be done without stifling their employees’ use of social media.

    There seems to be a great deal of selective interpretation going on here, not to mention an unfortunately confrontational tone to some people’s comments. Surely a topic can be approached from different perspectives? John Read approached it from an employment law perspective, which is perfectly valid – particularly as his post was published on an employment law blog.

    My full thoughts on this topic can be seen in my comment on John Read’s original post, which is linked to above. But here I just wanted to address the use of one line of my comment out of context.


    1. Hi John. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Ok, ill take your point about the confrontational tone and also the words I use – so i have changed the ‘garbage’ reference above. I have also included the whole paragraph from your comment in order to try and avoid any ‘out of context’ situation. I personally dont think it is, and adding the rest of the text, for me, doesn’t really change anything.

      Social media has been around for years – twitter for 5 years. So lets be generous and assume that only geeks and early adopters and people who could be trusted (!) used it in the early days but certainly widespread usage has been common in the last 2 years. Def the last 1. And has the world come to an end? No. Have brands been brought to their knees? No. In fact, i go back to my point above – if you look back you will still find way more examples of CEO’s and other Execs bringing the company into disrepute than employees via facebook or twitter. And they did so through traditional media.

      And as for Cornetto – well im sorry but thats not a good excuse for nailing everyone down with a policy. That could have been avoided with the same approach as Neil was taking could it not? I would also add that the situation with Cornetto might not have been as bad if “Disgusted of the Daily Mail” hysterics didn’t kick in every time someone made a gaff like that. But thats journalism for you. And its also about timing. In the next 10 years our over reaction will decrease as we become more comfortable, just like we did with email. We had exactly the same debate over email and made a much bigger deal back then of email gaff’s.

      Im not saying you dont make some fair points, but saying things like:

      “While it would be great if all employees at all organisations in all sectors could be empowered and trusted to manage their own use of social media, it simply is not the case.”

      Im wondering which industries or organisations employ people who are too stupid to be trusted?

      More fuel to the debate though I guess! Thanks for commenting.


      1. Gareth – I didn’t say the Cornetto example was a reason for employers ‘nailing everyone down with a policy’. In fact, if you look back at my comment and my original comment on John Read’s post, I advise against the use of restrictive policies on the whole.

        I referred to the Cornetto example only in response to your suggestion that social media can do little or no harm. It’s only one example, but I think it’s a valid example nonetheless. And as mentioned in my comment, there are numerous other examples, some far worse than that one. These go some way to demonstrating why a policy (and let me emphasise this again – a policy of guidance, not restriction) can be useful when used together with education and training.

        I must also take issue with your use of the word ‘stupid’ repeatedly in this debate. I don’t think anybody who advocates policies does so because they are assuming ‘stupidity’ on the part of employees. I certainly haven’t, and challenge the suggestion that I have.

        I referred to media literacy in my original comment, which has nothing to do with intelligence – but it is a key issue here, and supports the logic behind employers having a set of guidelines in place.

        Constructing straw man arguments and selectively interpreting aspects of people’s opinions to manipulate this debate into a fallaciously black and white argument will do little to enable it to arrive at any sort of sensible conclusion. There are lots of very valid opinions here, many of which are being unfairly disregarded.

        Also, let’s not forget the slightly different (but very much related) issue of how social media encourages people to interact with others in a way they would never dream of doing in a face-to-face or business context. We only need to look at one or two of the comments above to see how people who might not be otherwise considered ‘stupid’ (to use your expression) might lose their heads or thoughtlessly engage with somebody in a way that could be embarrassing if they were representing an employer or wider brand. This stuff happens – it’s wishful thinking to suggest it doesn’t.


  10. Hi John. Look, im not saying it cant do harm – but we are blowing the risk out of all proportion. And that is sad because it means we focus on the risks and the fears, not the opportunity. Right now, we are seeing some amazing things happening through social engagement of customers, but even in some of the same companies we are ignoring the possibilities. Why? Fear. Fear driven by lack of understanding and hysteria whipped up by the media and anyone who doesn’t understand and is quick to say “i told you so”.

    Of course there are risks, but they are minimal compared to the damage – ill say it again – that the leadership can and does, do. There have been numerous examples of the Cornetto situation – Virgin for example. But they are still with us! Did they get it wrong? Yes. Are they still with us? Yes. Has their market cap halved as a result? No.

    Of course, we do engage differently to your point, and sometimes this can be inappropriate. But social is also a good leveller and despite the heated debate it kind of works out. No there is no space for going over the top or being rude so if I’ve been rude to you then I apologise – thats not my intention. But an ongoing focus on what can go wrong has to stop.

    Back to your point – stupid isn’t a good word agreed but it was the words used by both Neil in his original presentation and John in his subsequent post! But you comment was loud and clear – you feel that in some organisations and sectors employees cant be empowered or trusted to manage their own use of social media. This suggests that employees of company A are in some way different to company B. From where im sitting, the only real difference between two companies is the culture and thats a feature of leadership.

    Why can they not be trusted? What is it about them that means we cant empower or trust them? Im really interested to know.


  11. As a lawyer in the US who advises lawyers and regulated industry on social media use, I really enjoyed this post. One of my greatest pet peeves are lawyers who don’t use social media – and as a result, ignore some possible dangers while (and more commonly) grossly exaggerate others. Most lawyers here in the US believe that it is far more prudent for a company to ban social media rather than to allow employees to engage it subject to the same rules of conduct applicable in the work place.
    Lawyers don’t “get” that social media is a platform; a tool. It is a mechanism to facilitate conversation but is not the conversation itself. If more lawyers used social media, they would recognize that. I do discuss the legal issues related to social media at my blogs and websites, but I always start from the approach that we should enable it – and figure out how to solve any issues that might arise, rather than prohibiting use and spending resources on enforcing a prohibitive policy.


  12. Hi Carolyn! how refreshing to hear your approach. It seems incredible to think that most lawyers are recommending a ban. You and I are on the same page – you have to be involved to understand it. This is not like the advent of the web where ‘websites’ or ’email’ were relatively understood by those who didn’t use them at the time. Social is different. Its social!

    What so many fail to recognise is that anything and everything anyone can or could say about their manager or company or brand or whatever has already been said and is being said. Its just you cant hear it right now. Social turns up the volume. Instead of becoming obsessed with the mechanism that brings it to their attention, they should instead get a little more obsessed with why those things are being said.

    It’s actually incredible really – organisations have spent millions of $ trying to find out how employees ‘feel’ and think, through surveys and focus groups etc etc. Yet, when a mechanism comes along that puts if front and centre – and at a fraction of the price – we try and ban it!! #fail.

    Its a privilege to have the chance to tap into this rich dialogue, not a threat.

    Great points and thanks for stopping by!


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