Today, everyone has an online presence. Like it or not, the chances are that there's enough data about you floating around the Internet to fill a book. Of course, this is old news. The newer news is that information is now available online about even the smallest businesses, too. I'm not talking about these companies' websites. For better or worse, your company is currently building an online profile.
Take the simple example of employees posting to Facebook. While prospective employers are increasingly checking out candidates' Facebook pages to look beyond their résumés, current employees are spreading the word about their workplaces through postings. What happens in the office or out in the field may now be online too, shared with ever-wider circles of "friends" to read. And with savvy young people now setting up accounts under false names, a disgruntled present or former employee may be impossible to track down.
Even an employee who isn't disgruntled can do damage to a company by inadvertently leaking secrets online -- bragging about a potential new account or revealing future pricing plans can be catastrophic in an increasingly competitive marketplace. Even something as simple as posting dumb or offensive material entirely unrelated to the employer can have negative consequences.
The bad news is that there is no easy management solution to this kind of very public disaster. Sooner or later a certain percentage of employees, for whatever reason, will change from cheerfully gruntled to decidedly disgruntled. However, the gruntle factors aside, there are precautions that business owners and managers can and should take.
To begin with, proactive education is one of the best solutions. Simply let employees know that, when they mention an employer on a social medium like Facebook or Twitter, they now represent the company as well as themselves. Likewise, posting cellphone images taken of equipment on a route, fellow employees or even products to their pages also requires some common sense and decorum -- not Queen's Jubilee decorum; but images of an employee passed out cuddling a beer bong (no matter how humorous) should be avoided. And in general, it's also risky to "friend" customers, or a client's employees.
Conversely, the power of social media can turn employees into effective marketers. Large corporations spend a fortune on "viral marketing" to publicize new products and services. Small companies, particularly those employing young people, may have enormous untapped marketing potential This doesn't have to be an orchestrated effort; a word here and there can be very helpful.
Other pieces to the online profile puzzle are consumer feedback sites like Yelp. Some of the reviews posted to these sites are brutal, and (as Yelp's management noted), the "nuclear option" -- suing to have a negative review taken down -- often results in even more bad publicity. There is no easy remedy here either, except to encourage satisfied customers to post positive reviews to counter the negative ones.
The media are full of stories about safeguarding your identity and reputation online, but few have addressed the problem of business identity and reputation. This is a shame, since it looks to be a growing problem as more and more of us go online to look for products and services.