The news that music retailer HMV was going into administration was broken to the world by one disgruntled ex-employee who hijacked the company's Twitter account and tweeted "There are over 60 of us being fired at once!" among other pithy comments that concluded with a final update reading: "Just overheard our marketing director (he's staying, folks) ask 'How do I shut down Twitter?'"
"We cringe when we see someone else make a mistake and think how could you be so foolish," says Anthony Mittelmark, an enterprise-grade digital expert and director at PwC Australia, "but the reality is that most companies are only one tweet away from a similar situation.
"Companies think that Twitter is important, but not a lot of thought has been put into the governance of the channel."
In just a few years, Facebook, Twitter and other social media have changed the way we communicate about everything from the brands we like (or dislike) to the way we shop and how we manage projects. With the technology still maturing -- along with some of its more colourful users -- social media is a powerful tool for connecting with customers because the cost of reach is low and the number of people it reaches is potentially very high.
"Currently, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter are primarily a PR tool, and are prone to comments and trends. And things that are trending carry more weight in the media than in reality, so companies tend to give them a lot of credence," Mittelmark says.
While social media may help raise a company's profile, a recent survey of US executives published in Hays Journal found that social media ranked among the top five sources of risk to a business.
Potential problems the research identified included the need to monitor comments by employees and others post on social networking sites, the importance of protecting the employer's brand and the constant investment needed to keep up with evolving technology.
"Employers need a clear strategy on how they address social media and present their brand. It has to be part of an overall brand strategy and not a free-for-all," says Nick Deligiannis, managing director of recruiting firm Hays in Australia.
"This means the investment needed to implement an effective and safe social media strategy can be substantial. Content must be consistent, high quality and channel-specific to add value and reflect well on a firm's brand."
An ongoing resource that is either internal or external to post and monitor content, and interact with a company's followers is also needed, Delgiannis adds.
"Managing resources in-house presents its own hazards, since content is often provided by more than one person and by different departments. So, heads need to be allocated to manage this process across all channels to ensure content and messaging is aligned to company positioning and to respond consistently to any negative comments.
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