Are you risking your business reputation on social media?

In November 2013, the JPMorgan Chase marketing team had what it thought was a bright idea.

The firm would host a live Twitter Q&A session with a senior banker and invite users to submit career advice questions. Within a matter of hours, thousands of people had joined the conversation using the hashtag #AskJPM — but they weren’t looking for work experience or CV tips.

One user asked: “Did you have a specific number of people’s lives you needed to ruin before you considered your business model a success? #AskJPM”. Another wanted to find out why the bank was wrongfully foreclosing on his neighbour. What was meant to be a customer engagement event quickly turned into a public embarrassment for JPMorgan, and big brands aren’t the only ones risking their reputations online.

Pizzazz meets professionalism

It can be difficult for businesses to strike a balance between having a personality and remaining professional on social media. However, AAT members should be aware that inappropriate online conduct breaches the organisation’s Code of Professional Ethics. Comments that could bring the profession into disrepute or exaggerate the services members are able to offer are violations of the code.

An active web presence helps to build brand awareness, especially for smaller firms that don’t have big advertising budgets. With this in mind, SMEs might be tempted to try and use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to increase sales or promote their products, but this approach won’t win them any fans.

Social media analytics firm Sprout Social found that 57.5 percent of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram users believe excessive promotional messages are annoying. Though this doesn’t mean companies should start posting about politics or cracking jokes. The first step to social media success is to adopt a professional, but personable, brand voice. Trying too hard to be funny or relevant can be just as off-putting as sounding like an advertisement.

“If you’re operating as a brand account, rather than a personal one, people are always going to be looking to you for a professional image,” says Clare Groombridge, director of South Coast Social, a social media agency that works exclusively with SMEs. “You can certainly be quirky and fun if your branding and tone of voice lends itself to it, but it’s important to maintain your professionalism.”

Mistakes and missteps

One London pub learned the hard way that a social media misstep can seriously damage a business’s image. The Bonneville, located in the borough of Hackney, was forced to close early on its opening weekend when a man stumbled into the premises after being stabbed nearby. The staff member managing the pub’s Twitter account then tweeted: “Due to events on Lower Clapton Road this evening, we will unfortunately have to close #WelcomeToHackney”.

Twitter users were quick to attack the pub’s insensitive attitude, and the backlash soon made its way offline, with protesters gathering outside The Bonneville to call for a boycott. It may seem obvious, but SMEs should take care to ensure they don’t post anything offensive or inappropriate on social media. While it’s easy to delete a Tweet or edit a Facebook post, it isn’t quite so easy to mend a damaged reputation.

“Own up and apologise if you’ve made a genuine fault, emphasising your commitment to putting things right,” Groombridge advises. “As much as people can panic and hit the delete button, if you’ve put something out there online, it’s going to stay online, especially if it’s offensive or contentious.”

A post doesn’t have to be disrespectful to attract negative attention. Cellecta, an insulation firm based in Poole, was named and shamed in the press when it tried to piggyback on a social media trend. In 2014, the hashtag #GiveGregTheHoliday went viral on Twitter after security guard Greg Heaslip’s colleagues started a campaign to grant him time off work. Cellecta tried to exploit the trend by using the hashtag in posts about its insulation, but got attacked for its shameless attempt at self-promotion.

Secrets to success

Social media-shy SMEs might think that sites like Facebook and Twitter are full of angry consumers waiting to air their grievances. There’s no denying that the internet gives people a platform to voice their concerns, but a well-thought out social media strategy can preempt any damage. If accountants ensure their brand voice is appropriate, and they respond quickly to complaints, they can make social media a positive marketing tool, while adhering to AAT’s Code of Professional Ethics.

1. Set the tone

Your social media posts should be written with potential clients in mind, so make sure your language and tone of voice reflects your professional approach to your work.

2. Keep advertising to a minimum

Your social profiles aren’t a billboard, so don’t treat them like one. Think of social media as an opportunity to showcase your knowledge and excellent customer service — not a year-end promotion.

3. Own your “oops” moments

Everyone makes mistakes, but you can’t sweep them under the rug in the era of the screenshot. If one of your posts hits a nerve with your following, apologise and make every effort to fix your error.

While JPMorgan’s attempt at connecting with customers might have fallen flat, smaller finance firms can make sure they don’t suffer a similar fate. Connecting with customers on social media is as simple as starting conversations. SMEs just need to make sure they’re raising their voices in the right way — and not just shouting into cyberspace.

Test your understanding of how our professional standards apply to your online behaviour. Take the quiz.

Jennifer Johnson is associate editor at award-winning UK communications consultancy Flibl. She began her career as a trade journalist specialising in the energy sector, and today works on business and tech editorial for a global client base that includes publications such as The Telegraph and New Statesman, and brands such as Royal Bank of Scotland and Emirates.

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