Zachary Weiner, the CEO of Chicago boutique ad agency Luxuryreach, has had quite a time in social networking land of late. Recent adventures include employees twittering about how demanding Weiner is, how hung over they feel, and how "totally not into" the client they are. Then there's the worker and her boyfriend who are lobbing character assassinations, sexual insults, and details of their therapy sessions at each other on Facebook. "I can't lie, I'd almost like to hear how it ends," says Weiner. "It's entertaining."
Entertaining, yes. But for executives worried about their companies' reputations, oh so terrifying. Every day it seems there's yet another social networking scandal breaking out, like the viral sensation of the woman who tweeted: "Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work." Or the Ketchum public-relations exec who said of client FedEx's (FDX) hometown: "I would die if I had to live here!"
Social networking is a love-hate relationship. On the one hand managers want their workers to experiment so they can cultivate new-world skills. Employees as brand ambassadors! Products virally transformed into overnight hits! On the other hand, bosses are filled with foreboding about social networking's dark side—losing secrets to rivals, the corporate embarrassment of errant employee tweets, becoming the latest victim of a venomous crowd. "Employees are saying, 'I need these solutions to be productive,' and the security and legal guys are saying, 'This could really explode, and we could really have a problem on our hands,' " says Intel (INTC) Chief Information Officer Diane Bryant. "You can talk yourself into all sorts of doomsday scenarios."
That's why many companies are formulating policies that seek to strike the right balance. Some, like Enterprise Rent-A-Car, block employee access to certain social sites. Enterprise also keeps a sharp eye out for employees' online musings. "If you mention the company or [a fellow] employee in a post, chances are someone will see it," says Christy Conrad, vice-president for corporate communications. Her team relies on Google (GOOG) Alerts to get updates each time someone includes certain words in a post. Other companies, such as , take a laissez-faire approach.
For a sense of how to manage the process, it's instructive to take a look at IBM (IBM). In 2005, seeing hundreds of its employees taking to blogging in their downtime, IBM drafted a set of "social computing guidelines" that has since grown to cover employee activity on sites like Twitter and Facebook. These guardrails urge employees to be up-front about their identities, remember that they are personally responsible for what they publish, and to take a breath before hitting send. They also remind them to "stay away from controversial topics that aren't related to your IBM role," notes Gina Poole, vice-president for social software.
While many see Twitter as a place to indulge one's inner self, IBM wants employees to "add value" in all their online postings. "You're building your social reputation, so you don't want to be a frivolous or an uninteresting person," says Poole. "If you're just saying, 'I had pancakes for breakfast,' it doesn't really add value."
"People Aren't Thinking"
But even the brawniest of policies can't prevent what executives at Intel call "escapes" (translation: undesired events such as an employee going off the reservation). "It's the Wild, Wild West," says Intel's Bryant. "As more and more people [use social networking sites], you have to be more active in reminding people of their obligations." Case in point: Bryant got an emergency call on her cell phone on Apr. 14 about a high-risk escape: An Intel employee had set up a chat room outside the company firewall to discuss an Intel earnings call as it was unfolding that day. The crisis management team kicked into high gear. "People aren't thinking," says Bryant. "We have had to go out and reinforce that you are still expected to abide by [Intel's] code of conduct."
Like many companies, Intel has software that acts as an automated SWAT team scouring the online world for intellectual property and personal information. Once, companies were only capable of filtering for Web sites. Now, with new security products from companies like Websense and Barracuda Networks, they can search content, right down to individual posts. Some employers are also hiring firms like Cyveillance, which charges companies upwards of $100,000 a year to troll social networks for confidential or damaging leaks.
It's the horror stories that give many pause. Generally, employers can discipline and fire workers for their Internet airings. Virgin Atlantic canned a cabin crew for dissing passengers and joking about faulty jet engines. But that's not the solace it once was. "When someone is fired because of Webï¿½2.0 activity, they're not going to hide in a hole," says Philip Gordon, a partner at law firm Littler Mendelson. "They're going to wear it as a badge of honor and turn it into a career."
Even as companies scramble to protect themselves, they understand that social networking is fast becoming the way people and companies collaborate and find new businesses. That's one reason General Electric (GE) deployed a Tweet Squad this month. Modeled on Best Buy's (BBY) Geek Squad, it is made up of 10 fresh-faced employees who help GE's boomers and Gen-Xers become fluent social networkers. Meanwhile, companies are working furiously to deploy their own social networking tools behind the company firewall. The idea is to bring some of what's happening on the outside inside. These so-called enterprise social networks hold big promise: a searchable, digital archive of all the happenings and knowledge inside a company. The dream is for these social media worlds to double up one day as a kind of virtual headquarters.
This month insurer MetLife (MET) deployed just such an internal social network collaboration tool called connect.MetLife. Employees who log onto the site see a page that looks similar to what they're used to seeing on Facebook. "Except," says Jeanette Scampas, MetLife's executive vice-president for information technology, "ours looks better."
Conlin is the editor of the Working Life Dept. at BusinessWeek. Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek in New York.