Social Media and Compliance: Turning Risks into Opportunities
By Gabriel Cecchini *
It is often read or heard about the growing risks that social media and other communication digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and others pose to corporate integrity. That is, the many ways in which new communication technologies put at the service of careless organizations and employees can jeopardize corporate reputations by exposing poor behavior or judgement, publishing confidential information, or damaging the trust of external and internal stakeholders.
Many remember (not very fondly) the community manager of US clothing firm American Apparel who posted on the company’s Tumblr account a photo to commemorate the country’s Independence Day with an image that appeared to represent fireworks but was actually an old image of the Challenger space shuttle’s explosion in 1986 (the company later apologized and said the community manager was too young and was born years after the explosion).
Just as the risks are sometimes very high, the benefits of making an appropriate, reasonable and intelligent use of social networks may exceed the former, provided adequate policies are in place for the use of these tools. In this regard, many companies already have specific social media compliance policies. Often introduced as separate guidelines, but always aligned with the Code of Ethics and Conduct’s main principles – and at the same time always available online – companies such as Coca-Cola, Intel, Daimler, Roche and Microsoft, among others, have produced specific documents in this regard. Some of the best practices that these guidelines include are:
– Employees should consider social media as other traditional channels of corporate communication, that is, they aim at establishing an open and interactive dialogue with different internal and external stakeholders (e.g., current and future employees, consumers, civil society organizations, governments, etc.);
– Participation in social networks must be seen as an opportunity rather than as a right in itself;
– The distinction between talking about the company vs. speaking on behalf of the company (institutionally) must always be taken into account. For those who speak on behalf of the company, the requirements in terms of content communicated and necessary training are higher and, in many cases, the individual accounts that are used must be specifically created for this purpose. On the other hand, talking about the company is also very important since all employees are encouraged (and can be) potential “ambassadors” of the organization;
– Use common sense when communicating through social platforms, while taking into account audiences and their respective cultural and geographical contexts (local, regional, global), as well as assessing what is appropriate / allowed and what is not;
– If relevant, add links to postings on digital platforms to reference or contextualize a message when appropriate or in order to comply with regulatory and/or legal provisions (link to full press release, company website, etc.);
– Establish and/or follow approval processes for publications, posts, etc.;
– Encourage employees to be active searchers for comments or perceptions in the digital sphere about the company (both positive and negative), reporting them whenever possible;
– Never disclose confidential, material or sensitive information of the organization;
– When errors or excesses are committed, it is necessary to apologize immediately, remedying the situation.
Due to the fast pace development of these social technologies, it will always be necessary to be attentive to the continuous updating of these policies based on an evaluation of new risks that may appear with respect to their use. Both the risk assessment and the design and implementation of these policies should involve not only those responsible for legal and compliance matters of the company, but also the assistance of communications, marketing and other units that have a critical role (and expertise) in the use of these tools.
Beyond corporate guides for the adequate use of social networks, the latter can also be of great help as tools to promote compliance and ethical general policies and standards within the organization. Particularly with regard to engaging younger generations of talent who are “digital natives” (that is, these digital communication tools are part of their identity and permeate all aspects of their lives, including professional ones), social media can be used by the compliance department and its leaders as channels through which to encourage best practices and a culture of integrity. Among many other potential examples, specific apps may be used to communicate the principles of the Code of Ethics and Conduct; groups or communities can be created in corporate social networks to work and find solutions to ethical dilemmas that employees face on a daily basis; and online ethics training modules that have interactive features (and have a social media platform’s “look and feel”) can be developed.
But perhaps the most valuable contribution social networks can make in order to foster a values-based corporate culture of integrity is their ongoing, regular use by CEOs and other senior managers. CEOs that communicate in a transparent and candid way through LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter enhance the vision and mission of their organizations, engaging with and listening to different stakeholders, creating trust and, therefore, increasing the reputation of their companies. This is what many experts have dubbed the new “Tone from Top 3.0”. According to recent studies, consumers are more likely to trust a company whose CEO participates and communicates in social media, especially during the emergence of a crisis or conflict where the voice of a company’s top manager is crucial to reassure employees, consumers and other stakeholders. At the same time, social media offer CEOs a special place from which to observe in an “unfiltered” way perceptions stemming from these very same stakeholders about the organization they lead, anticipating risks and allowing them to make proactive (not reactive) decisions.
Many global CEOs such as Unilever’s Paul Polman, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Apple’s Tim Cook, and AirAsia’s Tony Fernandes are active users of social media, defending when necessary from these platforms the values and causes with which their companies are aligned and taking strong positions against issues they deem unacceptable, both within or outside their companies (incl. their value chains), such as in cases of corruption, discrimination against minorities, human and labor rights violations, etc.. As it has recently been the case with a series of controversial decisions adopted by the new U.S. administration, many CEOs and other senior executives became social media “activists”, encouraging their employees and consumers that they stand by their side and count with their full support.
The field of compliance should then not only see social media under the light of the inherent (and real) risks they entail, but it must go a step further, embracing them in order to enhance corporate integrity programs and take them to the next level whenever possible.
* Gabriel Cecchini is Director, Integrity and Reputation, at Governance Latam, a boutique consulting firm specialized in compliance, anti-corruption and AML based in Buenos Aires. Between 2009 and 2016, Cecchini was Coordinator of the Center for Governance and Transparency at IAE Business School in Buenos Aires. He is member of the Open Government Partnership (OGP)’s Private Sector Council and of the World Economic Forum’s PACI Working Group on “Building Foundations for Trust & Integrity”. Cecchini has a B.A. in Communication from the National University of Córdoba in Argentina and an M.A. in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago, U.S.A.