Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword

Businesses are still uncomfortable with the idea of social media, writes Salma Zaman

Social Media: A Double-Edged Sword
In April 2019, the number of active internet users reached more than 4.4 billion. Of these, 2.77 billion users were active on one or more social media websites. With over 2.32 billion monthly active users, Facebook is the leading social media website. Twitter is less popular but still has over 330 million active users. Statistics show that majority of Facebook users are young and below the age of 35, so this number is likely to increase in the future.

With such an increasingly large number of users, social media should represent a revolutionary new trend of interest to any business, whether it operates online or not. Yet, even today many firms have been uncomfortable with the idea of a world where consumers can share their experiences and impressions about them freely.

Social media - and the internet in general - is a space where businesses lose control and fail to shape the conversation about them. If, today, an internet user searches a company on Google, the results will include not only the corporate website but will include related Twitter threads, YouTube videos, news stories and customer reviews. A quick Google search on “Nestle” includes not only the Nestle corporate website, but the Facebook page and Wikipedia entry as well. By quickly skimming through the Wikipedia entry for two minutes, I learnt about their many global controversies. Historically, firms were able to control the narrative and hire good PR managers every time a controversy arose. Now, firms have less liberty to modify the information released to the public. In many review websites, they are permitted to respond to customers, but are hardly ever allowed to delete or edit public comments.
Businesses in Pakistan need to invest in a social media strategy and should have planned outlines on how and when to respond in case of customer disgruntlements and complaints against their employees

A very famous example of this is when United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s guitar in 2008. United Airlines had probably damaged scores of valuable luggage pieces before this, but none of those customers ever recorded a music video about the experience and posted it on YouTube. The video, which portrayed the airline in a bad light, went viral and currently has over 19 million views. This was a huge PR disaster for United Airlines. The Daily Mail claimed that the loss incurred by the airline reached a whopping $180 million.

We live in a hyper-connected society where individuals share every opinion and experience. As social media gives them instant access to public forums, most users do not think before posting their thoughts. For businesses, this means that customers can be over critical and post about any bad experience almost immediately. Critical reviews, negative posts and exaggerated reactions can spread like wildfire online.

Businesses have a small reaction time to contain any negative publicity or online trend. The pressure to do the right thing immediately is very much real.

What makes matters worse, is that there exists a sort of ‘mob mentality’ on social media. If a corporation is under attack by a large number of people, we are unlikely to stick up for them. This might be because many of us look for validation on social media and are addicted to ‘likes.’ The desire to be accepted can hinder our ability to think objectively. Hence, our fear or losing followers or likes, would prevent us to go against the grain and stand up for a particular organisation.

Of course, this is not to say that a business, no matter how small or big, can ignore the opportunities provided by social media. It represents a medium through which firms can directly engage with customers in a low cost and timely manner. It can help advertise new products and make important announcements. However, how to respond when a controversy arises is still an art not many firms have mastered. One route could be the United way, where they ignored the customer’s grievance completely until it got out of hand. Another alternate route would be what Bank Alfalah did recently: react swiftly and severely.


The Controversy

A few days ago, journalist Hasan Zaidi was abused by an employee of Bank Al Falah. The employee used abusive language while responding to a tweet by Zaidi. Zaidi asked his followers to find out who the employee worked for as he felt that it was “time to write to his bosses.” When Zaidi found out this employee was a unit head for Bank Al Falah, he tagged the bank in the employee’s abusive tweets. Zaidi’s followers also jumped the bandwagon and found previous offensive tweets by the employee and tagged the bank in those as well.

Later the same day, Bank Al Falah made a public announcement that it had taken “appropriate action.” Later, Zaidi confirmed that the employee had been fired from his position, by tweeting a screenshot of a message sent to him by the CEO, and thanked the bank for taking swift action.

There are a few things to note in Bank Al Falah’s reaction: they responded almost immediately to Zaidi’s tweet. It is fair to infer that there was no HR process involved and the decision was made by the CEO himself. Additionally, the CEO sent a message directly to Zaidi to inform him of the “appropriate action” they had taken. This makes it appear as if the reaction was done to appease Zaidi more than anything else. Maybe this might have something to do with the fact that Zaidi is a well-known journalist with over 67,000 followers on Twitter, and the bank wanted the situation to die down before it got out of control.

However, Bank Al Falah’s reaction led to a severe backlash. The hashtag #BoycottBankAlFalah trended for the next two days on Pakistani Twitter. People felt the reaction was too harsh and a mere warning or a suspension would have been more acceptable. Sometimes Pakistani journalists use abusive language when using Twitter and defend it in the name of free speech. People felt that while journalists have the liberty to malign individuals in the garb of freedom of press, they become offended when someone else responds in the same manner.

It is difficult to deduce what the correct course of action should have been in this situation. The employee did use coarse and abusive language but is his dismissal fair in this case? According to Standing Order (SO) 15 of the Pakistan Industrial and Commercial Employment Ordinance 1968, an employee may be fired for misconduct. However, the definition of misconduct is limited to the following: “Wilful insubordination or disobedience to any lawful and reasonable order of a superior, theft, fraud or dishonesty in connection with the employer’s business or property; Theft, fraud, or dishonesty in connection with the employer’s business or property; Wilful damage to or loss of employer’s goods or property; Taking or giving bribes or any illegal gratification; Habitual absence without leave or absence without leave for more than ten days; Habitual late attendance; Habitual breach of any law applicable to the establishment; Riotous or disorderly behaviour during working hours at the establishment or any act subversive of discipline; Habitual negligence or neglect of work; Frequent repetition of any act or omission mentioned in clause 1 of Standing Order (SO) 15. This includes disregard or disobedience of rules or orders, improper behaviour such as drunkenness, making false or misleading statements, inefficient dilatory, careless or wasteful working, malingering; Striking work or inciting others to strike in contravention of the provisions of any law, or rule having the force of law.”

The most extreme punishment for the various misconducts listed above is dismissal. According to SO 15, no order of dismissal can be made unless the employee concerned is informed of the alleged misconduct and is given the opportunity to explain the circumstances alleged against him. The swiftness with which Bank Al Falah responded leads one to believe that no such procedure had been followed in this case.

Although the Standing Order does not mention employee behaviour outside work, there are no rules allowing employers to punish behaviour outside work. In any case, misconduct by the employee does not fall under the punishable types of misconducts outlined by the Standing Order. It seems that the bank had no legal justification to fire this employee. Even in the United States, Pier Sixty LLC on April 21, 2017, had to reverse a decision taken to fire an employee for using profane language on a Facebook post against his employer and his employer’s mother.

From what I gather, the bank reacted in haste. When a journalist with strong connections messaged them, they took swift action without putting much thought into potential legal and social repercussions. Perhaps if a proper inquiry had been made and a process followed, firing of the employee would have been more acceptable to the public. The fact that the CEO emailed Zaidi directly informing him of the decision further complicated things: in such matters, it is usually customer service, or a PR team that responds to complaints and not the CEO himself.

The controversy points to the fact that businesses are still uncomfortable with the idea of social media. They act under pressure and in haste, in an attempt to control conversation about them. We can also see in this case is that this often has the reverse effect and a quick and unjustified reaction might lead to more negative publicity and further controversy.

Businesses in Pakistan need to invest in a social media strategy and should have planned outlines on how and when to respond in case of customer disgruntlements and complaints against their employees. This plan should also be in line with all the organization’s core values and brand image. Otherwise in this hyper-connected world of the internet, millions in brand equity can be lost in minutes.

The writer is an assistant professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences