Why companies should be polite or be damned on social media

Unplanned communication has created an uproar in the market. Look at what happened to Lenskart during Nepal earthquake.

 |  5-minute read |   18-06-2015
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If you lose money for the firm, I will be understanding. If you lose reputation, I will be ruthless

                           - Warren Buffet

Post 2000, following a spate of corporate scams, there has been a felt need to save "face" as a precursor to building and managing reputational assets in the corporate realm. With an enhanced reputation, companies enjoy a strategic advantage in terms of price, customers and employees, and can command higher stakeholder commitment. Small wonder then, the term "reputation" has gained mammoth proportions with companies struggling to manage face-threatening situations and maintain "face", a challenge that is exacerbated in the digital age.

For instance, losing reputation in the eyes of the stakeholders can have multiple tangible and intangible side effects with long term consequences.

With a spike in the number of users in the last three years, online communication (eg, new and social media) has become the most preferred platform for companies to converse, engage, and collaborate with stakeholders. Likewise, stakeholders too expect that corporations will facilitate and enable two-way communication. With this focus and expectation, the need for dialogue and conversation reigns supreme. But what happens if the conversation goes sour and snowballs into a face-threatening issue? Dissatisfied consumers or one incorrect or impolite tweet is sufficient to damage the reputation or threaten the face of a company.

Given the fact that conversations managing face and reputation are by far too frequent how should companies respond? The question is critical as both correct or incorrect information can be posted at any juncture by stakeholders with an "echo" effect that amplifies the note. The tone, the content and the manner of statement by companies help them in managing face. Even before we begin to answer this question, let us pause and consider what would be considered as appropriate (polite) and inappropriate (impolite) online conversation? The pragmatics rather than the linguistics differentiates the two.

Polite and impolite conversation in social media are directly related to crediting or discrediting face and reputation. To further elaborate, "face" refers to the expectations and feelings of the stakeholders which, in all honesty, should be respected. Is there a need to subscribe to these expectations and feelings? If yes, not much facework needs to be done, whereas if negative, there is a constant struggle to maintain/save "face".

In an ideal situation, the appropriate technique for communication would be to be polite in tone, content and manner. On the contrary, we have examples where companies are indulging in conversations that are impolite, bordering on sarcasm and irony. Is it by accident or by choice? What are the implications of this conversation? What does it reflect? Power? We need to bear in mind that consumer rants about companies, what they have done or not done, set into motion a process of attack and counter-attack. The issue before us then is, what should be the super strategies for online communication? Can all be planned and then implemented with success? There have been instances when unplanned communication has created an uproar in the market. However, these instances are, by far, few. The more dangerous and frequent are the ones when the tone is "nonchalant" or malicious.

The recent Lenskart example following the Nepal earthquake or the Kenneth Cole tweet after the violent political protest in Egypt amplify how insensitivity to the environment can stir up a storm of emotions. Examples of a similar nature, though inappropriate and impolite, are not intentional. Apologies with attempts to rectify the situation clearly indicate the accidental nature of such communication. However, apologies do little to abate the intensity of the crisis as more and more individuals and groups join the fray as spectators (with likes and dislikes) or engage in active conversations.

In other instances, individuals, groups or competitors may comment on company behavior patterns and threaten "face". In such situations, as a defence mechanism, companies may respond and rectify the situation through either witty or chiding remarks. Witty remarks as in the case of Red Cross or Groupon may bring a smile to the face of the readers and secure eyeballs but chiding remarks (Nestle in the KitKat case) serve to dismember the chord of trust and faith.

The above cited examples clearly stress the need to manage the social media space.

What is the company objective - is it to protect the self or attack the other - could well sum up the difference between polite and impolite communication. What is the cost and the associated benefit? Who loses in this sum game and who is the beneficiary? If the focus is on minimising cost and maximising benefit to the self rather than the other, then all principles of tact and politeness can be thrown out of the window. However, if the same applies to the "other", then communication undergoes a 360 degree turn. Probably, this is one of the reasons why maintaining a goodwill with online consumers is important. A case in point is Flipkart during its Big Billion Day sale in October.

As on date, companies are still in the experimenting mode. What should be said and what should not be stated is still being debated. There is no one formula that can be applied universally to all situations. What, however, is definite is that "face" has to maintained and reputation managed. A shift from business economics to conversational cost and benefit will go a long way in securing consumer faith.

Wit and humour, with the potential of diluting the negative impact are potential tools for protecting the self and other. The use of chiding remarks designed to suppress stakeholder conversation definitely reflects power, but one which will not last long. The answer is solidarity: tying the knot with the consumer, influencing and persuading, but gently. Churning or negatively responding to stakeholder concerns can be disastrous for hell hath no fury than when "face" is scorned.

Writer

Asha Kaul Asha Kaul @ashakaul

Asha Kaul is a professor of communications at IIM A.

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