Copywriter, technical writer, translator (FR>EN, ES>EN, IT>EN), journalist

Social Skills and Social Media

Social media is equal parts gold mine and minefield. Just ask Canadian musician Dave Carroll or United Airlines.

In the spring of 2008, Canadian country-rock band Sons of Maxwell was travelling from Halifax to a gig in Omaha, Neb., on a United Airlines flight. Somewhere along the way, baggage handlers broke band member Dave Carroll’s guitar. He complained to United for months but got no results. Frustrated, he outlined the experience in a song and YouTube video called United Breaks Guitars. Accolades poured in, the video and song enjoyed a flurry of success, and United endured a public relations black eye. Carroll, meanwhile, has gone on speaking tours as an advocate for customer service, even participating in a CBC documentary on the subject.

The primary lesson here may have been about customer service and being a good corporate citizen but the incident also underscores the role that social media — Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, blogs — play in today’s culture and jurisprudence.

“Before social media, you hoped to get your story into the Toronto Star,” says Chris Hunter, a partner with Norton Rose Canada. “Now if it gets picked up on social media sites, it causes a long-term negative impact.”

Indeed, it goes well beyond 15 minutes of fame (or infamy) as such things may have played out in the past. A search for “United and Dave Carroll” yields screens full of material about the broken guitar incident and its fallout.

Avoiding negative consequences while profiting from everything that social media has to offer is the purpose of an effective social media policy. It doesn’t have to be complex. The policies of some companies fit on one page, but should guide your company on how it uses social media to fit its business, and how it responds to social media events in the most effective way possible.

Should your company ‘break a customer’s guitar,’ it’s often the front-line workers who will field the complaint. (In fact, Carroll produced a follow-up to United Breaks Guitars with a number on the airline’s “unflappable” customer service representative.)

“Train junior staff to recognize when something goes wrong and when they should call more senior people in,” says Toronto-based social networking and knowledge management consultant Connie Crosby. “A senior communications person should be involved in responding because there are often nuances that a junior person might not see.”

One of Hunter’s clients found out firsthand how quickly videos go viral on YouTube. “There’s a takedown provision on YouTube and we just could not get it taken down fast enough using YouTube’s policies,” Hunter says. YouTube removes videos from the site that violate copyright, community standards or its terms of service agreement.

Since this video accumulated only a few hundred views, he adds, “We avoided the ‘Streisand effect.’”

Like many celebrities, Barbra Streisand has had to deal with invasions of privacy. On one of those occasions, her backlash ended up backfiring. An aerial photo of her oceanfront home appeared on a website documenting California’s shoreline erosion. Initially, not many people knew of the photo but when she learned of it existence, she reacted with so much legal force that it made the news — and the whole world found out about it. Suddenly, a photo that had a handful of views was seen by possibly hundreds of thousands of people.

An incident that might have been contained instead spread further than it would have had she taken a subtler approach. Inadvertently, Streisand lent her name to a phenomenon. Others who later experienced similar situations found that quieter (and classier) reactions make the incident more likely to blow over.

If you need to take action, show some tact. It may even become a feather in your cap.

That was amply displayed in July when Jack Daniel’s Properties Inc. took issue with a book, Broken Piano for President, whose cover had a resemblance to the famous bourbon bottle. The company’s lawyer sent the author what he described as “perhaps the most polite cease and desist letter ever written,” asking that the cover design be changed, and even offering to pay for the cover’s redesign.

“We are certainly flattered by your affection for the brands, but while we can appreciate the pop culture appeal of Jack Daniel’s, we also have to be diligent to ensure that the Jack Daniel’s trademarks are used correctly,” Christy Susman wrote, adding: “As an author, you can certainly understand our position and the need to contact you. You may even have run into similar problems with your own intellectual property.”

The upshot: the publisher agreed to change the cover (and declined JD’s offer to pay for it), while the book shot up Amazon’s bestseller list and the booze company basked in the glow of a viral PR bonanza.

Jack Daniels proved it knew how social media could hurt the brand, whether as a result of one of its postings or a posting from outside the company. Companies need to also be wary of negating the value of their social media presence. Businesses use social media as a two-way marketing medium, sometimes to great success, sometimes not.

“When you’re on Twitter, you don’t want to be boring,” says Monica Goyal, founder and CEO of, an online legal service. “If you play it safe and defensive, your message could be boring and people aren’t as likely to pay attention to you.”

The line between engaging and boring on social media can be a thin one, and the line differs from organization to organization. Lululemon, for instance, drew a daring line when it posted the video “Sh*t Yogis Say” to poke fun at its core market. Drawing your own company’s line will take careful thought, guided by the instincts of your company’s marketing department.

Threats to a company’s information systems can emerge from social media usage, sometimes in ways that are difficult to control. Passwords, for instance, often come from birthdays, names of relatives or friends, names of pets and other personal, easy-to-remember information. It’s also the type of information many post in social media accounts like Facebook, where people seem to “friend” strangers indiscriminately.

This is a social engineer’s dream. “Before you know it, I know their birthdays, I know when they’re off on holidays, I know their mom’s names, and with information like that, I can form ‘dictionaries’ of the employees,” says Kevin Lo, managing director with Toronto-based Froese Forensic Partners Ltd. “I can use these dictionaries to guess at their passwords.”

Automatically prompting staff to periodically change their passwords reduces this vulnerability, as does educating employees on the value of strong passwords.

Meanwhile, anonymity on the web leads people to feel safe in leaving libelous comments on blogs. Moderating comments helps prevent the issue, but criteria used to moderate blogs have to appear on the blog itself.

“If you don’t publish a policy on this in advance, the company could be accused of not being transparent, not being honest,” says Crosby. “You don’t want to be seen as censoring people’s comments.”

An effective policy covers concerns from every part of the company that uses or is affected by social media.

Who should head the policy development team? In-house counsel, according to Caroline Clapham, a Vancouver-based associate with Blake, Cassels and Graydon. Because it touches so many aspects of the company’s business, “it’s important for legal to get input from all the various departments and aggregate the content into one comprehensive policy.”

Potential members of the team include directors, customer service, human resources, marketing, IT and any other department that gets involved with the company’s online presence.

Also include employees who would be affected by the policy, so that policymakers can better understand the impact. “It makes the policy more acceptable when the people being subjected to it participate in its creation,” says Chris Bennett, head of Davis LLP’s IT Law Group and Trade-marks Law Group.

Including the written policy as part of the employment contract is step one. “The best (method) is to have a social media policy rollout with training sessions for staff,” and to have the policy and guidelines covered during new hire training, says Clapham. “Also, employees should be reminded of the policy on an annual basis.”

Finally, when drafting your social media policy, you might want to begin at the source.

“Look at the terms of use of various social media themselves,” Bennett says. “It’ll give you a good idea of the things social media sites worry about. They should be things you worry about as well.”

Social Media Policy Tool Kit

a policy generator that simplifies the process of creating guidelines that respect the rights of your employees while protecting your brand online.

links to over 200 publicly-available policies.

This article originally published in In-House Counsel Magazine. For a PDF of the print version, see below.

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