Thursday, January 10, 2013

A cautionary tale of engagement

I'm still cross-posting but will stop doing so at the end of this month. So if you like what I write, please check out the new Leapfrog blog at

Meanwhile, here's a cautionary tale for those who perhaps don't pay enough attention to their 'net rep'.

However strong your brand; however motivated your people, your organisation’s reputation ultimately rests on the weakest link in the ambassadorial chain. A single employee bad-mouthing your business or your customers can stoke up a furore that can spiral well beyond any offence caused by the employee’s original action.

Such reputational time bombs are magnified hugely in an age where social media is fast becoming the prime feeding ground for traditional journalists who find themselves having to compete ever more vigorously for consumers’ interest in a news marketplace where you lose if you blink – never mind snooze.

Take the case of Holleh Nowrouz. Up until the end of December she was Sale Sharks Rugby Club’s social media executive. As such, her name appeared all over the club’s website; in its printed match programmes and, on behalf of the club, through a wealth of social media feeds.
Sale have recently moved from their Cheshire homeland to the new Salford City Stadium and their media team have gone into overdrive promoting the club to a potential new fanbase while trying to ensure the traditional supporters continue to follow the club at its new location. Their job clearly hasn’t been helped by the fact the Sharks are rock bottom of Rugby’s Premiership, with a revolving door on the coaches’ office and marquee signings not performing to anywhere near expectations.
That said, it was hardly bright of Nowrouz to post the following status update on her personal Facebook page at the end of October:
Sale media furore

It’s a bit blurry (and sweary) but I hope you get the gist – Nowrouz vented her frustration on an element of supporters who seemingly weren’t differentiating the efforts of the media team from those of the coaching staff. By addressing Sale Sharks fans directly and expressing her opinion of some of them through a particularly poor choice of words, Nowrouz crossed an invisible boundary. Sure, this was posted on her personal Facebook page, but her name’s well-known, and any views she expressed through social media were bound to be linked to her role as a media spokesperson for her employer.
Had this been a ‘dear diary’ entry scribbled down before the age of Facebook, no-one would have been any the wiser, and Nowrouz would still be tweeting away on behalf of the Sale empire. But on December 21, the image above became rather more widely read in the public eye when it was posted on the Sharks’ unofficial fans forum . It was soon picked up across the network of rugby message boards and before the day’s end, had been picked up by the media. From the Mail Online through the Telegraph to Fox in Australia to the BBC, most stories shorthanded the issue focusing in on Nowrouz calling fans f*******.

Actually, before the end of the day on which her frustrated post was shared on the Sharks’ forum, very many fans were in agreement with what she said – but registered their recognition of her stupidity in how she chose to express her opinion. However, through their association with Nowrouz, Sale were taking a pummeling in the media. A club already seen to be close to crisis was now seemingly having its reputation trodden through the mud by the thoughtless actions of one of its own employees.

At first, the club sought to quell the furore (much of it based on Middle-England ‘righteous indignation’ rather than fact) by posting an apology:

Holleh Nowrouz deeply regrets the posting she made on her personal facebook page at the end of October. Disciplinary action has been taken and the matter has been dealt with internally and both Sale Sharks and Holleh Nowrouz would like to apologise to supporters of Sale Sharks for causing unnecessary distress.

Unfortunately for both parties, the story had gone viral by then with almost every commentator focusing on that last three word sentence. It took three days, but by December 24th, Nowrouz’s position was clearly untenable. She clearly regretted what she’d said and even more clearly had no intention of her words of frustration spreading around the world. But she’d made the cardinal error of committing private thoughts to a public space. One Facebook update, uncovered by a disgruntled fan trawling through her net rep had damaged brand-Sharks significantly – and more so, had provided an entry point for any media entity looking to have a dig at all the other travails afflicting the club. Two hours before close of business on Christmas Eve, the BBC reported:

Sale sack club official for Facebook comments about supporters
Sale Sharks have sacked their social media executive for posting derogatory comments about the club’s supporters on her Facebook page. Holleh Nowrouz was dismissed by Sale’s chief executive Steve Diamond following a “stringent disciplinary review”. Sale…are bottom of the Premiership table with one victory from 11 matches. “At this crucial time for the club Holleh’s comments, though private, just overstepped the mark,” said Diamond.

As social media executive, Nowrouz should have been more aware than just about anyone else at Sharks of the club’s social media policy and code of conduct for employees regarding talking about any aspect of the club through social media platforms. That’s if Sharks actually have such a policy – one suspects they certainly didn’t have before December 21st!

A core aspect of engaging employees has to be in helping them understand the benefit or damage they can do to their organisation through the way they talk about that organisation with their friends and family, suppliers and customers – and anyone who might be reading something they post on a social network. Clearly this is a two-way street. Employers should create and instill clear social media policies and pay extra special attention to anyone who’s seen as a spokesperson for the employer in the normal course of their job. Such people need special help and support to ensure they’re clear on where the boundaries lie. Equally, employers can’t expect to treat employees badly and steer clear of justifiable criticism. However, by working with staff to define and codify the boundaries, employers can steer clear of the kind of issue faced by Sale Sharks through Ms. Nowrouz’s action.

We all have to recognise that anyone in our organisation is a potential communicator and the tools of communication extend far beyond traditional corporate outreach and are now visible all over the world, all day, every day. Are you confident that you have the tools in place to ensure none of your employees, however inadvertently, does a Nowrouz on you?

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