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Public Relations: This is how social media has power

Gareth Cliff, Penny Sparrow, Chris Hart and Velaphi Khumalo are South Africans with one thing in common. They are branded racists on the basis of what they write and posted on social media.

Lenox Mhlanga

The resultant “twar” (twitter war) has taken disturbing racial overtones. What is more intriguing is the fact that one of them is black.
It has split that country into two camps, pro-white and pro-black.


Sparrow labelled black people “monkeys” because they were soiling and crowding Durban’s pristine beaches. Hauled over the coals for expressing her sentiments, she was fired from her estate agency job.

Hart’s crime was more sublime in comparison. When commenting on South Africa’s embattled economy, his tweet about entitlement and “hatred towards minorities” proved problematic. They threw him under the bus by association.

Then Khumalo, a government employee, reacted by saying that he “hated all whites,” calling on fellow blacks to do to them what Hitler did to the Jews. He has been suspended despite a grovelling apology.

All the above have not leant anything from a 2014 incident, when New York-based public relations executive Justine Sacco was fired for her legendary, yet dense, tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get Aids. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Sacco apologised but has admitted that the tweet destroyed her life. So did Sparrow and Hart. But social media was unforgiving.

The common denominator is that the organisations that these people worked for were quick to disassociate themselves from what is deemed to be the personal opinion of the individuals concerned.

This illustrates the link between reputation and the actions of one or two errant yet influential individuals in the companies involved. In other words, what they tweeted was bad for business.

Last week, TV and radio personality, Cliff threw himself into the fray. His “unfortunate opinion” has seen him dumped from the lucrative Idols judges panel by M-Net. He tried to fight off racist insinuations about his own reaction to the furore. Admitting though that it was ill-timed.

Said Cliff: “I think this is an ugly situation. It’s a conversation we absolutely need to have, but I believe it has gotten out of control. It’s not everybody in South Africa. It’s everybody on social media.”

Social media has an unprecedented global reach. Depending on the popularity of the person posting or what he or she posted, millions can be potential recipients.

“This leads to a greater risk of saying something stupid, or at least at a greater risk that the stupid things you once shared among friends and forgotten the next day, are now read by thousands, never to be lost,” wrote Marly Didizian and Richard Crumbley in their UK handbook Social Media and the Law.

Cliff wants his day in court over the Idols suspension, claiming that “M-Net gave in to the mob.” Well, if you ask me, M-Net gave in to Cliff’s stupidity.

The clear fact is that social media has become powerful.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) confirms that the meteoric rise of social network sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have changed the communications landscape forever.

“But social media are more diverse: a connected complex ecosystem founded on relationships, passions and a desire to be connected,” CIPR says.

In other words, it’s big, connected and here to stay.

Social media has exploded in the last few years fuelled by a combination of greater internet access, smart mobile devices and monetisation.

For a lot of organisations it’s an excellent tool to reach out to audiences and get feedback from them. For others, still, it is a serious threat to their existence.

It has been adopted by corporates to inform, educate and influence the wider public outside the boundaries of their usual audiences.

“Equally, the same companies have to grapple with the increased use of social media by employees and the challenges offered by the blurring of distinctions between personal and professional lives,” say Didizian and Cumbley .

Evidently, social media is different from traditional media and social intercourse. It is spontaneous, meaning that one can tweet, post, like or comment instantly. There are no bearers and as long as there is connectivity, one can get involved. Social media messages can be saved or reposted to create a record that is difficult to withdraw or to amend.

So there is a need for organisations to approach social media strategically. There has to be a social media policy for the company. This document should govern how the organisation uses social media in business operations. It also has to draw the line between personal and professional use.

The policy should counsel and caution employees on the dangers of social media in relation to their status in the company. This should not be in violation of fundamental freedoms of expression and speech.

Employees should be made aware of the tremendous responsibility that they bear when they interact on a public forum like social media. It is difficult to separate personal and professional profiles, particularly when it comes to reputation issues.

It is advisable to involve legal counsel when producing such a document so as to ensure that certain rights are not trampled on in the rush to protect a company’s reputation in public space.

According to British business mogul, Lord Alan Sugar, social media has become an invaluable tool in the public relations armoury by giving companies a direct voice to speak to members of the media and the public at large.

So, there is the need for an organisation to have a social media strategy. This strategy taps from the public relations or communications strategy, which in turn is connected to the company’s strategy.

Today’s public relations practitioner has to adapt to the rapidly changing communications landscape. The opportunities and challenges offered through social media fall directly under their purview.

Social media becomes a game-changer under our watch, transforming the way we operate. This we have to embrace as opportunities to inform, converse with and relate with our diverse audiences increase.

But people have to be careful what they write on social media because stupidity can zoom around the globe at the click of a button. And the consequeces can be dire for both the individual and the organisations they represent, as some luminaries have discovered.

Lenox Mhlanga is a communication specialist with a global multilateral organisation. The views that he shares here are his own. Contact him on Email: WhatsApp: +263772400656 Twitter: @lenoxmhlanga

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