Whilst social media presents many business opportunities, it also triggers risk mechanisms that companies need to be aware of, and manage.

With the rise of social media tools, the increase in Internet users and the mushrooming of devices that support this system, company operations are increasingly exposed to the world. This push towards openness and transparency means that any form of ‘dark side’ might be subjected to magnified scrutiny online from anyone watching – and there is always someone watching.

Here are the five aspects through which social media risk mechanisms unfold when incompetent customer service, inefficient operations, unethical behaviour or any other form of ‘dark side’ is unveiled:

  1. Speed: the speed at which a negative story can spread online can take as little as a few seconds. The time once needed to research, develop, publish and distribute a story has virtually vanished. A story can be published in the form of 140-characters, in a matter of a few seconds.
  2. Visibility: as soon as a story is published online, it becomes very easily visible. Publishing anything on the Internet means accessing the largest marketplace on the planet. If there is one place that acts as the common denominator between many different people around the world – it is the Internet. This is thus the most efficient space to make your voice heard.
  3. Amplification – more than mere visibility, a story can go viral. Just a few people spreading the world suffice for a story to move around different online networks, along a plethora of diverse social media sites – all at an incredibly fast pace.
  4. Reach – this aspect is important to keep in mind as a story does not only have the power to become highly visible – but it can become so across geographical boundaries and time zones. This means that it can reach the ears of really anyone, including your competitors and customers located miles and miles away from where the story initially originated.
  5. Storage – once a story is out there, online, it is extremely hard to take it out. Your company may decide to remove whatever online content you are empowered to remove. But the story can always be regenerated, in many different forms, by those people who have been exposed to it. It can, for instance, come up again in the form of a blog or a Facebook post, which your company will have no control over. There will always be, thus, the possibility for a story to resurface or be found again in a few years’ time from when it actually happened.

To illustrate these risk mechanisms, let us take the example of United Airlines’ 2012 incident. In March of that year, the airline, after agreeing to combine its reservation system with Continental, experienced a series of technical problems with ticket bookings that left customers very frustrated. Moreover, its contact center was blocked, triggering extremely long hold times – which, evidently, did not help the situation at all.

  1. Speed: it did not take long for customers to express their anger on the matter, turning mostly to Twitter to send short messages of what was happening.
  2. Visibility: the story thus materialized into visible content online that was quickly shared by other Twitter users.
  3. Amplification: the news spread and more and more customers teamed up in their discontent with the airline, strengthening thus their case. This amplification effect hence greatly hurt United Airlines’ reputation and led many customers to look elsewhere and fly with other airlines.  The customer base of United Airlines was thus greatly affected as a result.
  4. Reach: not only did United Airlines suffered reputational damage and customer loss, but the news went much beyond too by reaching the ears of other airlines around the world – which used the case as a lesson to prevent such situation from ever happening to them. For instance, when JetBlue and LOT Polish Airlines partnered to connect customers between Europe and North America; they approached their new alliance by saying that it will allow customers to ‘seamlessly book connections through JetBlue’s home at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and LOT’s hub at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport.’ Marcin Pirog, CEO of LOT Polish Airlines added: ‘thanks to the agreement with our new partner JetBlue, we are able to offer our passengers a broader choice of connections at the highest standard of service.’ The new service thus capitalized on being a ‘seamless’ experience, with the ‘highest standard of service’ – two qualities that customers had not experienced with the case of United Airlines.
  5. Storage – we are two years from the incident now and we are still talking about it. The details of the story can still be found online., moreover, is a website available to visit at anytime in order to find out – still today – the number of complaints that were made against the airline, amongst other information. Such is the magnitude that the ‘storage’ effect can have, post-crisis.

Thus, as this case study shows, if not manage quickly and efficiently, a negative story can spread online like a snow ball, inflicting much damage to a company’s reputation through these 5 risk mechanism. The risk side of social media hence needs to be looked at and handled with care in order to avoid or deal with potential crises effectively.

Posted in: Social media development, Social Media for Executives, Social Media Implementation

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