Social Media Mistakes Companies Make, and How They Reflect Corporate Values: Part 4 in our Social Media & Values Series

Amber Johnson Ethics, Strategy, Values

This is the fourth in a four part series. For the previous entries please see the links included below.

Photo by dougbelshaw, via Flickr.

Fifteen years ago when I began my career, I carried an oversize purse just to accommodate my cell phone – which was for emergency purposes only. I never dreamed of owning a smartphone with more computing power than my first desktop.

With those smartphones, and the media outlets that have popped up around them, the world is more connected than ever before. Our great ideas have greater potential because with the right conditions they can go viral; the world can hear about them instantly. Of course, our worst mistakes can go viral as well – and there lies the challenge for corporations in the social media space.

We can learn from the mishaps of others, as we have through this series:

  • Nestle | Lesson 1 | Don’t Get Snarky
  • American Red Cross | Lesson 2 | Do Have a Sense of Humor
  • Vodafone | Lesson 3 | Admit Your Mistakes and Take Care of Them Quickly
  • Motrin & Chevrolet | Lesson 4 | Don’t Make Light of What Others Take Seriously
  • Fast Food Restaurants | Lesson 5 | Don’t Make Mom Mad
  • United | Lesson 6 | Use Your Mistakes to Train Your Team

Even the world’s most ethical, most responsible companies have slip ups: they are inevitable in human systems. The best we can hope to do is to prevent the mistakes that are preventable, and mitigate the mistakes that sneak through the cracks.

We communicate our corporate values in each exchange we have; never is this more evident than in social media. By focusing on the positive corporate values, companies can save headaches down the road and repair headaches today. Here are three simple ways to incorporate your values into your social media plan:

1. Train Your Social Media Staff on Values-Integration: Employees occasionally go rogue, as we saw in the Nestle example. You can decrease the frequency of this occurrence if employees have a clear vision for how the corporate values should integrate into all communication streams.

For example, a Nestle core value is to understand, anticipate, and fulfill their customer’s needs. Social media staffers can ask, “Does this message I’m about to Tweet show understanding of my customer? Does it meet a need?” Aligning Tweets with Values might keep messages in check.

To accomplish this integration, it’s important that the corporate values be more than just a list that’s published on the website and mentioned in the employee handbook. Values should be fully integrated within the corporate culture, and ideally within review and compensation systems as well. Research shows employees are more engaged when this happens.

2. Use Your Values to Set a Social Media Policy: Establishing a social media policy isn’t a new idea; many organization’s have them as a way to define boundaries for employee engagement with communications outlets. (For a database of nearly 200 policies, including Coca-Cola and FedEx, see this link.) You can upgrade your policy – and make it more of a culture-centered document – by cross-referencing it to your embedded corporate values.

People read blogs and Twitter feeds because they’re written by individuals, not by corporations. A personable voice, a sense of humor, a little tongue-in-cheek, can go a long way toward creating a loyal following, But each company has its own tolerance level for humor – especially when it crosses the line toward snark.

Cross-referencing values to the social media policy can call out these weak spots before the public finds them. Companies that are known for their formal professionalism may have terms like “stability” in their corporate values statements. These companies have a lower tolerance for social media informality.

On the other hand, some companies have a high tolerance for playfulness. Shoe retailer Zappos has “Create fun and a little weirdness” as a corporate value. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that you can easily find youself Rick-rolled while visiting their website.

3. Use Values as a Checklist: At the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, some of our strategic partners refer to values as a “Compass for Decision Making.” They certainly can be.

McDonald’s top value is “We place the customer experience at the core of all we do.” In our example from fast food restaurants, we saw how a failure to consider the customer experience led to a social media mishap. Both in prevention and cure, values can be used as a checklist to identify sticking points. Resolve them early.

Certainly, when a social media mistake has gone viral, it is important to craft a response that is consistent with corporate values. How can you reflect hospitality, or transparency, or responsibility? The public is watching.

The first step for all these, of course, is to identify your corporate values. (If you’ve yet to do that, please contact the Center for Values-Driven Leadership.) Get clear about who you are before you ever create a social media account.


Amber Johnson is the Center for Values-Driven Leadership‘s corporate relations and social media advisor. She is a non-profit and small business communications professional. 

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