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Fighting Tweet Fire with Tweet Fire

Posted by on July 20, 2010 at 9:10 pm

The current edition of the Harvard Business Review (July-August 2010) includes an article by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler of Forrester Research, entitled “Empowered.” In it, the authors talk about the need for corporations to “unleash their employees to fight back” using the same social media tools that angry customers are increasingly using against corporations.

Today’s latest social media tools, like Twitter and Facebook, have given the individual customer unprecedented power to take his or her grievance to the masses. One of my favorite such incidents in the last year involved musician Dave Carroll, who took on United Airlines for rejecting his damage claim after baggage handlers broke his guitar. In response, he wrote a humorous ditty called “United Breaks Guitars,” and posted a video of him performing the song on YouTube — which has received nearly nine million views to date.

United’s brand took a beating, and it is not alone. As Bernoff and Schadler point out, these types of single-customer social media firestorms are popping up all over the place, and corporate executives are scrambling to figure out how to effectively respond.

Granted, I am not suggesting that customers, who have a legitimate complaint against a business entity, lay down their new social media guns. On the contrary. I applaud the creative use of technology by a customer to hold a company’s feet to the fire — when a genuine wrong has occurred. But what I also applaud, and encourage, are companies which are beginning to embrace these same technology tools to tell their side of the story.

In a number of my past blog postings, I have called on executives and managers to empower employees to think more creatively, and incentivize them to take risks and to challenge corporate routine. And empowering employees to leverage the same social media tools at work as they use at home opens up a whole new front in cost-effective corporate communications, while better utilizing employee talent.

Of course, this type of empowerment is not without risk as the authors of “Empowered” note. It requires a clear set of internal ground rules that govern both management and employees. But if properly designed and executed, the benefits of engaging employees in leveraging social media will far outweigh the costs of not doing so.