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The risks of social media for retailers

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The appeal of social media is a mixed blessing; a great opportunity for retailers to reach out to their markets, define and strengthen brands and stay current. It’s also an increasing source of employment issues, is pretty uncontrollable and a potential disaster zone for branding.

Some social media disasters start with bad PR campaign ideas. An increasing number though are a result of a vendetta or other negative reaction by one or more employees. A social media post of two human feet trampling in bowls of lettuce of a well known burger chain or the recent Twitter campaign by HMV employees worrying about their job security are potential brand destroyers and yet arise through very little effort by employees.

These social media disasters really highlight the paradox of the information age. A greater ability and expectancy to be able to express oneself freely but within workforces and a wider society that is increasingly measured and monitored. Clearly rules can be imposed by retail employers on their workers but quite where to draw the line and how to react may well depend on what serves an organisation’s brand and reputation best. Some brands may even be considered as contrary to a closely governed workforce. These suggestions though are likely to be relevant to most if not all retailers.

  1. Any comments about individual customers should be prohibited completely. Some may involve the publicising of personal data and identity but regardless, the message to employees should be clear - no such postings.

  2. Similarly with postings about colleagues.

  3. Exceptions to 1 and 2 above may arise where there is an appropriate approval and vetting process within the retailer.

  4. Broadly the same rules should apply whether through a retailer’s official social media account or on a personal account.

  5. Clear instruction should be provided on where to draw the line between work and personal, acceptable and not. This is a huge issue facing HR professionals and employment lawyers. The fact that a posting is made through a personal account, outside of working hours does not mean it is not work related and employees should be instructed to ensure that they understand this.

  6. The importance of brand loyalty and reputation should also be emphasised at the outset of employment. Clear guidance on the retailer’s values and what its brand stands for should then be provided on a regular basis. Where possible clear messages of respect and consistency in terms of brand PR should be emphasised.

  7. Recommendations should be provided to those employees in management positions especially in terms of allowing employees to access their accounts and the need to be professional and retain the respect of employees being supervised by them.

  8. Retailers should ensure that they have workable whistle blowing policies in place and that their employees understand these. Any recognised union might also help here. Genuine whistle blowers should be encouraged down the appropriate policy route.

Once these clear understandings are established then retailers can focus on appropriate and positive media campaigns through social media.

Of course all of these instructions are only as good as the employees instructed and an employee will not find it difficult to disobey these instructions should they be minded to for whatever reason.

The greater the use of social media the greater the risk; perhaps too the greater the use of casual and short term employees then the lower staff loyalty and greater the risk. A combination of clear instructions, employee loyalty and good recruitment practice will all help to reduce the risks.

Published on Monday 10 March by Editorial Assistant

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