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Social media platforms have made it easier for companies to engage with customers, but with that comes the risk of damage to your brand, which could also happen from the inside.

‘Reputations, like trust, are built over time, but can be destroyed in an instant,’ says Deon Binneman, a reputation management advisor known as ‘The Reputation Go-to Guy’. He’s specifically referring to the risk social media poses to the reputation of a business.

‘Online social networking comes with risks not associated with many traditional ways of connecting with people. Unintentionally offend someone in person at a restaurant, for example, and the repercussions are likely to be minimal. But post a photo that others deem offensive on your Facebook page, and you could risk alienating others and even setting yourself up for potential lawsuits,’ he explains.

The problem, says Verlie Oosthuizen, partner and head of social media law at Shepstone & Wylie Attorneys, lies in the immediacy of the medium and potential for content to go viral. ‘Businesses have very little control over how quickly content will spread, where it will spread and who will be upset, enraged or offended by it. Once the content is out, it's impossible to get it back under control. There are often no checks or balances in place to monitor exactly what employees or associates or customers of a business will say online and content can be viewed by thousands, screengrabbed and re-distributed very easily before a business is even aware of its existence,’ she adds.

Verlie points out that there are various reputation management tools available online including Social Mention, Trackur and SentiOne but that Google Alerts is a cheap and simple tool that alerts you should your company’s name be mentioned. ‘It's a good idea to have a savvy social media marketing professional monitoring these tools and acting on any information brought to their attention,’ says Verlie.

Be proactive

‘The good news is that institutions can take an active approach to influence and counteract how their company is portrayed on social media,’ says Deon. He recommends that companies create an internet reputation risk management plan addressing what visitors to your site express, what your employees share on other sites and what is said about your brand online. ‘A policy gives direction. It provides the boundaries within which a person can share information, engage with stakeholders and communicate,’ he adds.

According to Deon, your employees are ambassadors of your brand whether or not they like or understand that. ‘If you work at a company you cannot separate the corporate brand and its values from who you are,’ he explains. As such, Deon says in addition to a social media policy, companies should inform educate and instruct employees on using social media effectively and judiciously. He adds: ‘It’s not about NOT communicating; it's how to use the tools effectively to engage stakeholders and share company know-how.’

Should an employee post offensive material that could negatively impact your brand, Verlie says an employer is entitled to take action against them if a link can be established between their behaviour and the reputation of the company. In extreme cases such as Penny Sparrow and more recently Adam Catzavelos, she says their media posts have devastating effects on businesses and the public will look to the business to take action. She adds: ‘It's very important to warn employees about the dangers of posting on social media, the possible consequences and to clearly communicate any social media policy that may be in place.’

While the risks organisations face as a result of participating in social media are real, Deon says ‘so too are the benefits. Don’t let risk blind you from taking advantage of the communication opportunities that arise from social media’.

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