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Stephen Baker
Stephen Baker,
DIRECTOR
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Social Media and Reputation
17 January 2017

Threats to an organisation from employees in the technological information environment are becoming a hot topic for employers, but can be managed through secure policies and appropriate monitoring. Acting swiftly in response to any social media crises is paramount, as the damage to reputation may be irreversible. The response to any urgent problem may be engaging with a newspaper, bloggers or whoever is damaging  the reputation. Alternatively the response may be a legal one, engaging with lawyers and obtaining an injunction. Regardless of the steps taken to manage the damage, which may include costly litigation, prevention is better than the cure.

1.    Mason v Huddersfield Giants Ltd [2013] EWHC 2869 

Summary: A rugby club had wrongfully summarily terminated a player's contract for gross misconduct as a result of the appearance of an inappropriate photograph on his social media account. The player had at best omitted to remove the photograph promptly and had not breached an essential term of his contract. Although his contract required that he not bring the club into disrepute, and the club promoted family values, the contract's essential terms focused on the player as a rugby player.

Practical point: If reputation and branding are an important part of your business, ensure that your social media policies and contracts reflect this so that you can enforce any breaches accordingly.

2.    Coulter v Sunday Newspapers Ltd Queen's Bench Division (Northern Ireland), 09 August 2016

Summary: Damages of £50,000 were awarded to a plaintiff in a libel claim following the publication by a national newspaper of an article which would have been understood by a hypothetical reader as meaning that he was a mean, "Scrooge-like" figure who had acted callously towards staff by making them redundant shortly before Christmas.

A member of staff contacted a journalist employed by the defendant and leaked what turned out to be untrue claims that the pub owner had not paid staff and had dismissed employees right before Christmas, in a "Scrooge-like" like fashion.

The newspaper failed to make out a Reynolds defence because the business was important to the local community, so that there was sufficient interest in the subject matter of the publication. Moreover, the journalist's failure to question the quality of the information source or to verify the allegations meant that the standards of responsible journalism had not been met.

Practical point: This case emphasises the importance of avoiding negative media reports to protect your business. Employees that leak the untruthful stories to the press can face severe disciplinary action if an appropriate disciplinary policy is in place.

3.    Preece v JD Wetherspoons plc (unreported)

Preece claimed she had been unfairly dismissed following her dismissal for gross misconduct. She had made comments on her private Facebook page about customers of the pub where she worked. The employer’s internet and intranet policy, which the employee had knowledge of, clearly stated that employees should not write or contribute to a blog where the content lowers the reputation of the company or its customers, and the company reserved the right to take disciplinary action where this had occurred.

The employee’s claim for unfair dismissal was dismissed by the Employment Tribunal.

Practical point: Ensure your employees have read, confirmed and signed up to your internet policies in case anything does go wrong.

4.    HMV staff ‘live tweet’ firing of 60 employees

Whilst HMV was in the process of laying off 190 employees at its head office, an employee in charge of social media planning took to twitter to ‘live tweet’ the dismissals. The tweets referred to ‘mass execution of loyal employees who love the brand’, significantly damaging the reputation of an already struggling (at the time) company.  It is worth noting that the employee tweeting was dismissed prior to posting the tweets.

Practical point: Maintaining control of social media in the workplace is paramount through ensuring that only a few individuals have access to public posts and that you have a strong policy and vetting process in place before anything gets tweeted/posted to the internet. Whether guarding against loose tongues from a current employee or an ex-employee, a strong social media policy could help to protect your business.

5.    Social media to the rescue in the US

In 2007, American chain Home Depot had some very poor feedback on MSN from a disgruntled customer, which prompted hundreds of similar comments on the bulletin board. As a result the new CEO responded in his own MSN article with an open apology asking for continuing feedback to enable the company to keep getting better.

They now closely monitor social media and respond quickly to any issues. One blogger has been prompted to post a blog about them entitled 'Social Media to the Rescue! (A Customer Service Success Story)' following the excellent resolution of a complaint that he had, which he'd tweeted about.

In the UK in 2015, high street brands Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Argos and Greggs have been in the press for responding to angry twitter exchanges with humour- prompting a positive response from the media and other customers alike. For example:

Twitter User: I have tried to buy some battered fish from @sainsburys but it didn’t have a bar cod!

Sainsbury’s: @twitteruser Were there no other packs in the plaice or was that the sole one on the shelf? Floundering for an explanation!

Practical point: It appears from this case study and other recent media reports that social media and the response to any negative posts can be a way to turn your business around. Speedy and positive responses to customer feedback are essential in today’s leisure & hospitality marketplace. In the alternative…

6.    Social media to set the record straight

A Michelin- starred chef in Birmingham has hit back at a scathing review from a customer savaging the ‘tiny’ portions and ‘immoral’ prices, by responding to suggest that she would be happier with Man vs Food.

Practical point: This is a prime example of dealing with a complaint early on, and the chef decided that as the review was filled with what he considered to be lies, he decided to set the record straight. The internet’s overwhelming response appears to be in favour of the chef in this instance, but this could be a risky road to take. 

For more information about the issues in this article or to find out more about how the Leisure and Hospitality sector can help you please contact the team on 0118 952 7711 or email leisure&[email protected].

Consistent with our policy when giving comment and advice on a non-specific basis, we cannot assume legal responsibility for the accuracy of any particular statement. In the case of specific problems we recommend that professional advice be sought.

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