The Barouch Feature: Social media risk for the tech-savvy executive

Jonathan-Barouch---Portrait-#2When Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently dismissed social media as being no more than “electronic graffiti”, it struck a nerve – his comments neatly summed up the attitude of traditional corporate Australia towards social communications channels.

While there are a number of high-profile exceptions, in the main I don’t believe Australian executives or boards of directors fully appreciate the risks and opportunities that social media poses to their companies.

Corporate communication departments often ask me whether their companies (or even their CEOs) should be on social media. In most cases this question misses the point: many of their customers are already trying to talk to the company through social channels, but their questions are going unanswered. This is a big problem for Australian companies that have their heads firmly in the sand.

No reputable CEO would make an argument that they don’t believe in answering customer queries via a telephone. But we now find ourselves in the bizarre situation where these same CEOs are implicitly running with the same logic when applied to this new social media communication channel.

In recent times I have shown senior executives in a large Australian corporation instances where customers have taken photos of themselves taking drugs at one of their properties, drinking under age at their licensed premises, and even an occasion of an employee boasting about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace.

These kinds of conversations often strike fear into the hearts of corporate CEOs who quickly realise how potentially damaging they can be when they are also in the public domain.

There are risks, obviously, to your brand, to your human resources plans, and even to the ongoing operation of the business. But if there are people sharing social posts that collectively are an existential threat to your business, wouldn’t you want to know about it?

This is the conundrum for modern-day corporates. Images, comments and posts by your customers and employees are already out there on the social web irrespective of whether you have figured out your social media strategy. The conversations are already happening.

If you are a director or a senior executive and you are not asking your teams questions about your firm’s social media risks and policies, then I believe you are not adequately discharging your obligation to the company.

The reality is that social media is no longer a phenomenon and must be considered another mainstream communications option. Consider these numbers from the latest SMK Insights paper: Twitter boasts more than 288 million active monthly users and 500 million Tweets per day, while Instagram attracts more than 300 million active monthly users and 2.3 billion “likes” every day.

These are big, undeniable numbers. The world engages on social, such that it is entirely moot whether your company has embraced it. And the growth in the volume of social media interactions is not showing any signs of slowing.

The great opportunity for savvy boards and CEOs is in harnessing public data streams from social channels to learn about your company and the market in which you operate, as well as your customers. Social media provides a real-time, unfiltered feedback tool for businesses, whereby customers are putting personal preferences into the public domain. It is a rich data resource that should underpin the Holy Grail of providing better and more personalised services.

For ASX-listed companies, a social media presence is non-negotiable. ASX listing rule 3.1 now provides guidelines for social media monitoring in relation to continuous disclosure obligations. Social media platforms, which include not just Facebook and Twitter but blogs and bulletin boards as well, must be monitored.

Companies are bound to reasonably monitor social streams for posts or rumours that may be material, share price sensitive or could be considered insider information. As a result of these rules many listed companies in Australia today are already closely monitoring social data streams for risk mitigation purposes.

But they aren’t properly exploring the data to unlock the value opportunities within. You don’t need to be a hip and Tweeting CEO to see that makes no sense.

Jonathan Barouch is founder and CEO of location-based social analytics company Local Measure. Local Measure is headquartered in Sydney and with international offices in Singapore and the US.

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