Twitter and Facebook vs. Corporate Reputation and Brand

Lately, I've been thinking about a website that was really, really big in the dotcom years that has, for years, been defunct.  It was called f***  (You have to fill in the asterisks for the correct site name.  I'm being polite.)

It was an insider's sort of site.  It reported news - and gossip - from within the various technology companies in the Silicon Valley.  It was the go-to resource to find out, initially, where you didn't want to work.  Eventually, it became the site that was reporting where there was no work any longer.

I had an up close and personal experience with that, myself, through one of my clients.

She was (and is) one of the best executives I've ever encountered.  Visionary.  Incredibly smart both operationally and in market strategy.  Created an environment for her employees that led to consistent business growth and innovation.  Truly excellent.

The company for which she worked was one of the beneficiaries of the early days of dotcom mania.  It was a relatively small company with a specialized integration technology that was used by and of interest to lots of larger players.  The company was even seeing unheard of occurrence in the dotcom days.

As a result, and not unexpectedly, it was part of a series of acquisitions into larger and larger players.  Until a big company decided to buy it.

Really big.  Like giant.  And not at all in the technology space.

And that was the end of the company for which this executive worked.  Within a couple of weeks of the acquisition, the employees found out that the company was being disbanded.  The patents on the technologies had been sold to another company - in the technology space - but the company, itself, was being shut down and all positions terminated.

They found out when one of them went visiting the f***edcompany site - only to find out that they were next on the list.

Interestingly, the executive was finally able to take a call from her employees - who had been bombarding her cell phone with messages asking if the posting was true - after she had just closed the biggest deal the company had ever experienced.  Tens of millions of early 2000s dollars for a relatively small player in one deal.  The next day she had to cancel it - because she was spending the next few weeks shutting down what had been a successful operation.

Granted, there are a lot of different pieces that can be discussed on this story, but the one I want to take on now is how information within and outside your enterprise moved back then - and now.  Most important, is understanding how that information movement can and does impact your brand and reputation - personal and corporate.

First, the proverbial "grapevine" is and will always be alive and well.  The problem now is that it's networked in ways that can make or break your company, its brand or your reputation in minutes.

Add to that the 24-hour news cycle - yes, for business, too - and you've got even more problems.  CNBC, Bloomberg and the rest are gathering and reporting news all day every day.  Their people are also trolling the blogs, Facebook, Twitter and all the other social networking sites with keyword searches 24/7 to stay on top of what's out there.

Or at least what's being said.

And even if you're a small player, your employees are out there, talking and looking out for one another's news, as if it was going to be broadcast any minute.  And it is.

In this case, viral really does mean viral.

All of which means that you need to be paying ever-closer attention to what's being communicated, how, by whom and through which mechanisms than you ever were before.  As well, your HR policies and any employment agreements that include discussions of intellectual property, patents and the rest are updated to reflect how information now moves.

Because, while in its day f***edcompany was the fastest tool around for getting the message out, now it might as well be a dial telephone.  One Tweet is all you need.  One really bad Tweet (especially with a hashmark) and the news - true or not - is out there.

Right now, there's a lot of talk about how social networking will help you build your company, its image, its relationship with customers, its marketshare and more.  And all of that is true.

But, there's a downside, as well - and that comes from not being as aware as you need to be about how those same technologies allow information movement coming from your own employees can work against you.

The value of your corporate reputation and brand - as well as your own - can be not only on the line, but also completely in others' hands unless you're paying attention.

There's nothing wrong with social networking.  In fact, it's an important new - and evolving - tool in an executive's and organization's toolbox.

You just have to remember that just as a hammer can be used to insert a nail, so, too, when not aimed correctly, does it smash your thumb.