Home Archive December 2009 Ruth Sunderland
Ruth Sunderland
Friday, 11 December 2009 14:36

So-called super-injunctions may be quite common, but social media blows apart the strategy of threatening with legal proceedings, says Ruth Sunderland, editor of Observer Business & Media

At a conference earlier this year for Communicate, I made the point that every organisation needs a Twitter strategy, or twatergy’. If there was anyone in the audience from oil company Trafigura, I can only assume they weren’t paying attention. A quick recap: The Guardian announced it had been restricted from reporting certain parliamentary proceedings; it was revealed by the Twitterverse that the gag related to a question asked by MP Paul Farrelly about the reporting of toxic dumping on the Ivory Coast. Unfettered by the legal restrictions on the newspaper, Twitter rapidly rendered the gagging attempt utterly futile.

It’s safe to say that Trafigura had not grasped the art of managing online reputation, and most people would say it got what it deserved, but what about cases of Twitter-trashing that are less clear-cut?

The viral impact of social media can cause serious harm. Although they still lack the credibility of traditional sources, the efficiency with which they can spread fact, fiction or a mix of both is impressive and alarming.
The media itself is not immune: just ask Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir, who was roundly Twitter-trashed when her comments on the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gateley were interpreted as homophobic.
Picking up the phone to a trusted journalist is still a good idea in this situation, to prevent the virus from being transmitted to the mainstream media, but it’s not enough.

Dominos Pizza fought fire with fire when a video apparently showing an employee farting on a sandwich and putting cheese up his nose was posted on YouTube. Its president produced his own video, and the company set up a Twitter account to deal with comments. Smart companies are also using their main corporate site and dedicated microsites to put their side of the story, or to advise customers and shareholders about issues that affect corporate reputation.

The Trafigura affair contains several messages for communicators: first, there are still secrets in corporate life, but they are a whole lot harder to keep; second, attack in the Twitterverse can be overwhelming in its speed; and third, social media has reduced the power of companies to use the law as a form of reputation management.

“Going to law to protect your reputation should always be a last resort – there’s a high risk it’ll backfire”

So-called super-injunctions, which seek not only to prevent a newspaper reporting a topic but also mentioning the injunctions themselves, are unfortunately quite common in the UK, but this has been torpedoed by the Trafigura case. Social media also blows apart the strategy of threatening individuals, or cash-strapped publications with legal proceedings. Going to law to protect your reputation should always be a last resort because of the high risk it will backfire, but do so with a shaky case in the age of the tweet and it will almost certainly end in global ridicule. here was a case in the US where firm that managed apartments threatened – it subsequently said tongue in cheek - to sue a woman with only 20 Twitter followers for a posting that said its flats were mouldy. The story promptly went around the world.

By the same token, social media has made it far easier for consumers to take on a company: leading London PR man Tony McGarahan, whose high profile jobs have included Equitable Life, notes that he had early experience of that as customers of the failed insurer made skilful use of new media to run action groups, raise funds, launch legal challenges to the government, and share information on financial communities such as Motley Fool. The basic point about damaging comments on social media, though, is they only reflect what people are saying anyway, in pubs and taxis. At least now we know.

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