Doug Cohen: Twitter: A blessing and a curse

A lot can go wrong in 140 characters.

I am not a Twitter user myself, but I have seen others post about their days, articles they’ve read or why they thought U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair was too straight during the Olympics.

But Twitter and all forms of social media are inherently dangerous tools. It only takes one erroneous tweet, YouTube video or Facebook status on the part of a business employee to seriously damage the reputation of any institution. And GW is no exception.

GW is working to develop its own social media policy for its employees, University spokeswoman Latarsha Gatlin said. And while it is impossible to prevent small social media gaffes, steps can be taken to help mitigate potential issues at a University with more than 6,000 employees.

Before you accuse me of needlessly babysitting a set of smart and capable adults, a review of social media faux-pas demonstrates how easy it is to misuse these Internet tools.

In 2010, two Domino’s Pizza employees posted a video on YouTube that showed one employee putting cheese up his nose and then placing it on a sandwich. During the political upheaval in Egypt last January, an employee from Kenneth Cole tweeted that the protesters in Cairo must be excited because of the new collection that the company was releasing that spring.

In the case of almost every fumble, each company was forced to deal with a public relations mess that caused irreparable damage to the business’ brand.

GW’s new policy should mandate that all employees using social media have a disclaimer stating that they work for the University, and that any views expressed are their own and do not necessarily reflect GW’s. For example, Cisco has a clear description of when it is necessary for their employees to identify themselves as part of the company, and how to attach appropriate disclaimers to their posts.

But besides telling employees what not to do, GW can also use this opportunity to demonstrate how to use social media to promote the University. A report from the consulting firm the Altimeter Group stated that “some companies fail to define business objectives for social media…” IBM has a section of its policy which discusses which social media posts add value to the entire company. Tufts University provides pointers about how to most effectively use social media, and even includes model Tweets from Tufts employees. By illustrating to all employees how social media can improve the image and messaging of the University, this institution can have a vibrant online presence.

The Altimeter Group stated that, “written [social media] policy is not sufficient on its own – companies must establish a baseline process to reinforce and update the policy, as well as train incoming hires.” A training session could explain to employees the social media policies, and provide examples of how employees at other organizations misused social media as well as the lessons learned from their mistakes.

GW could also provide updates and best practice information for social media through email or newsletters, a practice that several companies have experimented with in the past.

Employees at many companies are extremely liable to #judgmenterrors when using social media. Unfortunately, these judgment errors not only affect the individual involved, but can also have unwanted consequences for the institution that an employee represents. It only makes sense that the University does all it can to prevent a social media disaster.

Doug Cohen, a senior majoring in political science, is a Hatchet Senior columnist, and former contributing opinions editor.

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