How are you coping with the changing influence of the ‘net’? - Veterinary Practice
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How are you coping with the changing influence of the ‘net’?

The Mercury Column, in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

THE internet is a wonderful thing
but, like most potent vehicles, it
needs handling with respect!

The recent furore about the
personal battle between an advertising
magnate and a TV celebrity cook has
reached almost fictional proportions
and, while the media may be having a
field day, it provides a salutary lesson
that e-mail can be a double-edged

How many of us have
inadvertently managed to include
someone who shouldn’t have been
included in an e-mail? How many
of us have intimate knowledge of
that sinking feeling that recognises
that the casual pressing of the
“reply all” icon may just have
precipitated World War III?

Of course, as our media
couple know all too well, once the
message has been digitally squirted
into the ether, not only can you not
get it back but it’s conveniently
packaged to be bounced around in all
the wrong places.

This goes some way to explaining
why most companies have a section, or
maybe just a clause, in their
employment contracts delineating what
is and what isn’t acceptable internet
behaviour from employees.

Moving on

Things have moved on in many
companies with access to the internet
being readily available to most
employees, not just for e-mail but also
for on-line searching and other usage,
but it’s clear that there is a generational
gap between those who use the
internet as their main form of
communication, whether by social
media, e-mail or other messaging
options, and those whose life is more
attuned to the telephone.

Intriguingly, the generation which
drove the expansion of Facebook is
now, gradually, abandoning it in favour
of a wider choice of alternative social
media sites and, in many cases, people
have set up their own. The nature of social media is that it gathers together
like-minded people with the intention,
and often the automated function, of
sharing data regardless of whether that
is for a serious or more frivolous

Indeed. the nature of Twitter and
other such sites is for the world, or at
least everyone in that individual’s
world, to see the sagacity of their
individual wisdom and wit within the
perpetual challenge of abbreviating
something worth saying into a digital
version of shorthand.

With social media, everyone can be
both an author and a pundit and, like
Wikipedia, there is no mechanism to
separate truth from fiction. This can
be a serious problem when employees
tweet or post their views on a social
media site.

Very often, there is no corporate
mechanism to police such engagement
with the wider public, and any
subsequent checking will be too late if
an employee’s version of the truth
appears in any form that associates his
or her views with the employer.

Often, the employer may feel that
the views expressed may be different
from the company line or even that
the message is potentially damaging to
its brand values or company ethos. It’s
surprising how many employees have
little or no knowledge of the ethos of
the company for which they work.

Irretrievably associated

Over and above this issue, employees
can sometimes irretrievably be
associated with the company for which
they work, particularly so if their work
requires them to be publically
recognised, on occasion, as being a
representative of that company.

Even though they may tweet in their own time from
the comfort of
their own
kitchen, the end
result will very
often be
indistinguishable in the mind of the
reader from other
communications normally seen from
that employee when on company

For many, the fear is that
something tweeted or e-mailed might
be seen as being borderline libellous
but that gradation doesn’t exist – it
either is or isn’t libellous – and the
courts would be likely to take the view
that, if the intention of the author was
for the reader to think less of the
subject(s), that intention
would be more
important than the
words used.

Misuse of

Moreover, if the
contains personal
comments, even if
they might not be
interpreted as being
defamatory, this may
be a misuse of
personal information
under article eight of
the Human Rights Act,
which is concerned
with protecting private

Given the nature of social media,
this is a potential minefield for
companies big and small. If tweets
cannot be retrieved, there is only the
option of stopping further tweets but
this is clearly akin to bolting horses
and closing the gate. The real problem
is that tweets are a form of publication
and while each retweet is separately
actionable, the presumption in law is
that tweets are expected to be
retweeted and therefore republished so
the responsibility for this lies with the
original author.

Should this happen in your
business, the immediate action,
following a timely arrest of the
situation, would be to issue a rapid
apology and a retraction of any such
message rather than any attempt to
brazen it out.

Of course, you may have some provision
in your employment contracts that
makes this a punishable offence but the real problems lie in two areas: first,
the individuals have to understand that
social media is not a fluffy never-never
land but an open communication
vehicle where all the same rules of
libel and public damage exist; and,
second, that each individual needs to
take ownership of the brand values
and execution of public relations for the company which
employs them.

We have spent the
last decade or more in
encouraging companies
to empower their
employees but we need,
with some urgency, to
make the limits and
boundaries of that
empowerment clear for
all employees while,
encouraging a far
higher degree of
ownership of corporate

If any of us is
unclear about the
changing influence the
internet is having on our business lives we should heed the
salutary tale of a friend whose
recruitment business has been almost
driven out of existence by the power
of LinkedIn which offers all its
subscribers the opportunity to search,
contact and compare possible
candidates for vacant positions
completely free.

In a recent survey of employers,
the first tool they used to compare
candidates was Facebook to see what
kind of information each candidate
had, perhaps naïvely, posted about him
or herself. Ibiza 2011 may seem a
distant memory for many of us but it
lives on in vivid colour on the internet!

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