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Why trust employees to talk on the phone but not twitter?

Submitted by on Thursday, 26 February 20094 Comments

This question was recently posed on twitter, and many felt that companies should be more open in their social media approaches. Maybe it’s because I worked for a conservative packaged goods company for years, but I don’t agree.

Here is why:

  • The phone conversation is a 1:1 interaction, not something that is publicly posted.
  • Customer service reps are trained and given approved or standard responses to many questions. Often times those twittering don’t have any training.
  • There are policies that customer support representatives follow; few companies have social media policies for their employees.

I’m not saying that companies should not participate in social media.  I am saying that there are risks that are greater than talking on the phone, and the training/policy/process side for social media is typically underdeveloped vs. traditional telephone customer service.

I’m not advocating canned responses; my suggestion is that employees need guidelines to feel empowered in their social media interactions, and to protect the company legally.

On a Continuum, Social Media is somewhere between PR and Customer Service

I’m not saying it can’t be used for customer service, but due to the publicity aspect of social media it is closer to talking to the press than customer service. The people in a company who are permitted to speak publicly are typically:

    1. Very few
    2. Well trained
    3. Seasoned and experienced; have demonstrated good judgment
    4. Coached beforehand
    5. Given clear guidelines on messaging

There are also legitimate legal risks

When I worked in consumer goods every word attached to every piece of copy published by the company was approved by legal. Unless you have been engaged in this type of a process before, it may be difficult to appreciate the legal implications of things as simple as phrasing. There can be a world of difference between saying “virtually spotless” and “spotless” or “best clean” and “cleanest”.

Large companies are dragged into law suits all the time for their advertising copy.

That being said, social media is different in that copy can be changed/edited fairly quickly and at a very low cost. That being said everything you say online is indexed. It will be there, somewhere forever.

At the same time, even if something said on social media is outside of legal standards; if it is changed quickly, the probability of your competitors suffering any serious damages is fairly low.

Solution? Manage the Risk.

I’m not here to be a buzzkill for social media, I am a strong believer in the value of social media. That being said, I think that the risks are often understated and brushed under the carpet.

The reality is that companies, especially large traditional ones with lots to lose, need to be cautious when using social media.

Prior to jumping in, these are things that you can do to mitigate risks:

  • Develop policies on messaging. Engage External Relations/PR and Legal.
  • Create guidelines for those participating in social media.
  • Provide training on acceptable and unacceptable responses.
  • Create a list of topics that can’t be addressed.
  • Provide messaging that sounds like it came from a real, normal human being for negative comments that you are likely to receive.
  • Provide an escalation process for dealing with difficult or sensitive situations.

It isn’t about trust. It is about mitigating risk and creating guidelines.

Policy creation doesn’t mean standard canned responses. It means making sure that employees understand what they can and can’t say and why. It means helping employees feel comfortable answering questions because they know the company position on various issues. It means training. It means allowing employees to talk via social media like real human beings.



  • Ryan Miller said:


    Nice post. Just want to add a couple thoughts. I disagree partially with your stance because I think companies need to empower their employees more to speak directly to customers in general, but agree that there should be guidelines. For one thing, possibly having someone who is the outreach person, who is a ‘relationship manager’ be the point person for SM interactions would enable a consistency of message, while still enabling personal interactions. I think NOT putting out canned responses goes a looooong way to improving your brand and trust.

    I do however LOVE your analogy of comparing SM interactions to talking to the press rather than a 1:1 interaction. Great example.

    I’d wonder though, just because employees may be ‘banned’ from using SM as a response tool in interacting with customers, doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t talking about the business (negatively or positively) on social media networks under their own handles. I wonder if its better to treat employees like adults, enable them through some training and hope for the best, rather than try to control message through restrictions. Employee opinions are bound to get out there no matter what. Sorry for the long comment, but your post got me thinking….


  • admin (author) said:


    Great insights – thanks for sharing… since the medium is still so new I think that a lot of companies are struggling with these decisions.

    I’ve seen extremes. My brother is not allowed to even mention where he works online and has to delete comments that reference it. On the other hand you have companies that are happy to have their employees blog and discuss.

    I think that one of the important things in social media is to clearly distinguish between personal opinion and when you are representing the company.

    Thanks so much for sharing your insights….

    – Krista

  • Ryan Miller said:

    Thanks for the kind words Krista,

    I just wonder how long people will tolerate this sort of overlap between work and personal opinion. I know it happens all the time but having a company tell you what you can say ‘off premises and off hours’ is something that might not fly as we express ourselves more and more digitally. I know it would get under my skin. When you did campaigns for certain customers were you restricted after its over from writing about what worked and what didn’t or do you take liberties to say whatever you want?

  • Breda said:

    I agree with what you write – having guidelines and relationship savy helps to grow another marketing vehicle. I work for a company that fired some people for negative comments on a SN. The comments were about our clients and totally inappropriate in the context. Having policies and yes, how about some common sense to go along with that.

    Cheers from freezing Canada