Companies that have communities are well aware of the need to monitor and maintain the positive effects of the community, and that means instilling a sense of community health. Moderators use sophisticated tools to search for content that is considered inappropriate, or to watch for patterns of behaviour that could be deemed unsuitable. Bullying, impersonation to groom children for nefarious means, abuse, and child pornography need to be monitored very carefully, and stopping unsuitable behaviour is an urgent imperative. But in these task-rich, time-poor days how often do you look at your network to watch for these effects?

If you’re using a system where friends of friends are free to post content you need to be very aware of what is happening outside your immediate network. For example, if someone is posting pornographic images on their own profile, what effect is this having on their friends? What are your friends doing? What are their friends doing? Issues like this then become more than an individual problem, they become a network problem. The US Air Force cancelled their online profile on MySpace due to precisely these concerns.22 Col. Brian Madtes, chief of the Recruiting Service’s strategic communication division, said:

The danger with MySpace is we got to the point where we weren’t real comfortable with the potential for inappropriate content to be posted [on the page of] a friend of a friend. We didn’t want to be associated with that ’ and tarnish our reputation.

But everything isn’t always as clear cut as it seems. If you chop off whole parts of the established network then the network will fragment and crumble. The health of the community has a great deal to do with the network. Using appropriate monitoring tools and judiciously blocking miscreants might be better in the long term than pruning whole segments of the environment. And it may have a much larger impact than you think. Google, which carries out continuous monitoring, took a bold stand in January 2010 when it stated that it was pulling out of China as it believed that sophisticated cyber attacks were being attempted on human rights activists in the country. However, consider the effect on the majority of the Chinese people who use the service. Prune your network wisely.

Vitriol, harassment and spite

There is also the issue of people with personal brands who are targeted by others, being bullied and terrorised. Kathy Sierra, considered to be one of technology’s ’A list’ bloggers, experienced this at first hand. Kathy, whose blog is called ’Creating Passionate Users’, received death threats and harassment from unnamed persons. These threats and comments terrified her so much she stopped going to public events, stopped blogging and disappeared from the public eye for quite some time. Fortunately, with her excellent personal and online brand and reputation, she received considerable support from the blogosphere which helped her return to online life.

Some people on the Internet create fake IDs, send out cruel backbiting messages and place comments on sites using these fake IDs. Such behaviour, which can turn vitriolic and nasty, is thinly disguised harassment delivered by cowards.

Preparing for negative PR

There are lessons to be learned here. It is hard to build a great reputation, and it can easily be destroyed. Nestlé, one of the food giants, has long been criticised over its poor environmental practices over deforestation and palm oil and its éunethical use and promotion of formula feed for babies in third world countriesé.23 Nestlé has a Facebook page which became the target of many unhappy people advocating a boycott of the company over these practices. The administrators of the Facebook page took a hostile approach to the comments made on Twitter and Facebook and responded on Facebook accordingly.

With Facebook numbers currently at almost 600 million users, and the concept of friends telling friends, this PR disaster has amplified very quickly.

It no longer takes years to reach millions of users, it now takes minutes.

Nestlé representatives complained about some of the comments from Facebook users on their page. They initially deleted posts which were critical of the company and complained about use of Nestléés altered logo. Unfortunately, the situation quickly appeared to get out of hand, with hundreds of negative comments appearing on Nestléés Facebook page. This is not the first time that Nestlé has been in the news; Wikipedia has examples of previous issues concerning Nestlé. The interesting phenomenon here is that the use of social media has accelerated the runaway propagation of information into almost meltdown proportions. This is something that may do damage to Nestléés reputation entirely due to their initial attitude towards their Facebook fans.

I heard an interesting story at an event I attended recently about a social media site which has become notorious in a very short time and has got its social media PR entirely wrong. The site is called Fit Finder and it has the tagline ‘Witness the Fitness‘. This site isn‘t very politically correct but it has a huge following. Fit Finder has a feed for each college or university where you can post information anonymously on where the good-looking students are. All you do is fill in a form so that anyone subscribing to the feed can see where they are right now.

As I said, the site isn’t politically correct, and one of the universities had a couple of complaints about harassment. The college, which has a policy of not blocking sites, then sent out an email telling everyone not to visit the site. Traffic to the site rocketed, which led to more complaints about the content on the site.

JANET (the Joint Academic NETwork in the UK) then blocked access to the site. This meant that all universities, schools and colleges had no access from their PCs. However, anyone with a mobile device or other wireless connection could access the site and log on to see what the fuss was about. Another major spike in traffic happened and awareness of the site grew. The Guardian and the London Metro covered the story, with Metro further reporting about the start of the mobile revolution occurring. The Facebook page grew to over 4,000 fans and the feed at all college locations is updated regularly.

JANET, after multiple complaints from universities around the UK, unblocked access to the site again. There are regular updates—lots of them seem to be by girls commenting on boys, so there do seem to be roughly equal numbers of comments for both males and females on the site.

There are a couple of lessons that can be learned about managing social media PR:

  • Don’t tell people not to visit a site, as it’s the first thing that they will want to do’especially if the site seems scurrilous or controversial.

  • A blanket blocking by an organisation such as JANET will drive people to visit the site using other means. Mobile device updates, Facebook updates and Twitter notifications keep awareness right up there.

If no one had said anything, traffic to the site might have fizzled out in a few weeks or months. Instead, its notoriety has ensured its continued success. Fit Finder follows a similar model to Facebook, which is now 7 years old and hugely different now than when it started. I wonder if Fit Finder will have the same sort of success. It seems to have started off rather well.

A simple YouTube video can also trigger a similar propagation explosion. In early 2008 Dave Carroll, a musician in a band, flew with his guitar from Nova Scotia to Nebraska via Chicago on United Airlines. One of his band mates saw the baggage handlers heaving around the guitars with ‘wanton disregard‘. Dave complained to the flight attendants but his comments were met with indifference. When he arrived at his destination to play at the event he found his guitar was broken. He played at his gig, and complained to the airline upon his return and for several weeks afterwards. He spent $1,200 repairing the guitar and claimed compensation from the airline. Unfortunately this claim was denied by the airline because he didn‘t complain ‘in the right place or at the right time‘. Dave told United Airlines that he was going to write a song and post it on YouTube, but the company ignored his threat.

The ‘United breaks guitars‘ video went viral very quickly, and soon had over 8 million views on YouTube.24 This online video managed to connect with the airline. United Airlines responded to the video and ‘put things right‘ for him. By eventually responding to the issue and fixing their customers‘ issues, United showed that they could reverse the impressions created by their original poor service.

Tackling customers’ problems in a timely and positive manner can bring significant benefits to the company. After investing your efforts to create a positive online brand, this is certainly something worth considering as your brand grows in prominence.

So you now have a brand and a presence on the web. People already have a perception of your brand, so now let’s have a look at how to make the brand more successful. With success come challenges, and we’ll consider what to do so as to stay within your guidelines. What guidelines? Let’s now have a look at how to create a framework for your staff to work with.


  • You need to be part of the conversation.

  • Don’t underestimate the power of peer recommendations.

  • Consider your current approach to marketing. Will it still work in the social media world?

  • People will read what you write. There is no delete key.

  • Consider your privacy settings in each application and review them regularly.

  • Consider creating a page in Facebook for business.

  • Manage your reputation carefully and take prompt action to rectify any damage to your brand.

  • Be aware of the impact on your brand reputation and image if there are issues.