The tips of our fingers and the swipes of our thumbs have the power to prompt a call to action or to cripple established marketing efforts. Social media is a juggernaut that includes networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, WordPress, and Reddit. In addition, new media types include feeds, blogs, vlogs and podcasts. The list grows and adapts to the global information-on-demand market. However, few global leaders think about the intersection of culture and social media in their attempts to convey their organization’s values and voice. Mismanagement of messages to global audiences can have substantial consequences, and these consequences are permanent. Online actions made by global organizations exist in a living record that is continually updated to a worldwide online repository.
Nearly 30 years ago, the use of online media for corporate messaging began with assigning website domain names to organizations that many would recognize. Xerox, Hewlett-Packard (HP), International Business Machines (IBM), and Intel were among the first named. These early adopters set initial standards for corporate websites and later social media campaigns to deliberately communicate their organization’s values, mission, and goals.
Social media messages may be delivered to multiple constituencies simultaneously. Recipients include but are not limited to the existing organization’s global workforce; potential applicants; current and potential clients or customers; partners; governmental agencies; regulatory bodies; and the owner of any device with a live internet connection. With unfettered access to global audiences, preparing global leaders to judiciously use such tools and technologies is imperative.
On one hand, advances in communication technologies have dissolved barriers between and among leaders, employees, partners, teams, departments, and customers. A customer post or direct tweet may solicit a real-time response from an employee which may promote organizational awareness and engagement online. Accessing global social media audiences may substantially extend an organization’s competitive advantage. Published webpages and organizational blogs are living documents, which can be updated and refined continuously; this provides direct benefits to internal and external audiences with access to the most current organizational information.
Vying to post corporate successes captures the attention of global news outlets, thus extending the organization’s influence further. For example, IBM’s annual user conference, Lotusphere 2011 used a social media hub page that provided a live stream of conference content highlights using hashtags. Estimates for IBM’s conference Twitter campaign exceeded 41 million total impressions. This is the type of attention global leaders want to foster using social media.
On the other hand, posting the voice of an organization can be ambiguous and intimidating. Factors such as broader contexts, message timing, or the use of regional or cultural jargon may alter the interpretation of a seemingly well-intended, innocuous message. Social media messages are not easily removed. Despite efforts to remove content and delete initial messages from websites and re-posting outlets, the published content is preserved online, somewhere. Actions to mitigate the damage from social media missteps are often ineffective until the unwanted attention has shifted to a new target.
In 2011, Kenneth Cole (@KennethCole), an American clothing designer, used the protests in Egypt to highlight his upcoming spring collection in a series of personal tweets resulting in a global call to boycott his brand.
“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online… -KC.”
“Boots on the ground or not, let’s not forget sandals, pumps, and loafers. #Footwear”
“Regardless of the right to bear arms, we in no way condone the right to bare feet.”
In reaction to these remarks, a Twitter summed up: “Totally poor taste. People are dying in the streets and you want to advertise your fashions? #BoycottKennethCole.” Kenneth Cole’s online apology implying his remarks were intended to start a meaningful conversation about the events in Egypt was dismissed.
Employee personal Twitter activity also impacts corporate messaging. In 2012, while on a store-opening tour in South Korea, a Hollister (an Abercrombie & Fitch™ brand) fashion model posted an offensive picture from his personal twitter account. In the photo he is a wearing a Hollister shirt, smiling, squinting his eyes, and giving the peace sign. The image essentially mocked the Asian customer base the company was targeting with the tour. When followers reacted to the gesture, he responded, “Hahahaha they ruhhvvvv ittt!” Furious locals initiated a campaign to boycott the stores and posted intentions to return their recent purchases. While Hollister fired the employee and issued a corporate apology, these actions did not satisfy South Korean or U.S. online audiences.
To avoid embarrassing and potentially costly social media missteps, consider equipping leaders and their employees who engage in social media activities with tools to effectively communicate in a cross-cultural online global environment. Trained leaders may encourage employees to undertake collective responsibility for protecting the organization’s sensitive information and promoting the type of content that reinforces a positive shared vision of the company and its connection to the global community.
Global executives understand that their professional (and personal) activities will be scrutinized. Peers, competitors, shareholders, the news media, and the broader social media community judge published web content. Marketing campaigns for corporate messaging are carefully developed and reviewed to avoid any inadvertently questionable content prior to posting. Conversely, social media messaging is more casual, often published by numerous employee contributors and not subjected to multiple pre-publication reviews. It is not surprising that all employees are exposed to some level of online scrutiny and are held responsible for missteps. Social media gaffes can draw negative attention and the impact may have serious implications for an organization’s reputation and bottom line.
How do organizations mitigate the risk of a social media blunder? In addition to developing cross culturally competent leaders and employees to interface with global peers, attention should be given to how these leaders conduct their professional social media activities. Aligning social media policies with a foundation of self-awareness of personal, cultural, and organizational values is a solid initial step. Next, syncing this personal information with an understanding of the features and values of other cultures supports a framework for effective cross cultural communication. Finally, extending this enhanced communication approach to a global online audience conveys the organization’s appreciation of and sensitivity to cultural similarities/differences.
Reinforcing leaders and teams to continually self-reflect, integrating new cross cultural information, and seeking clarifying feedback from global peers when developing social media messaging is one approach to averting culturally offensive gaffes.
Lisa Silva Moore, MS, ABD is the online and social media manager for The Institute for Cross Cultural Management (ICCM) at the Florida Institute of Technology. She is a doctoral candidate in Industrial/Organizational psychology.