Jason Cohn, social media consultant for Taurus Marketing, shows us the perils of social media for brands, and hands out some valuable advice for brands to avoid feeling the burn.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far less informed, unethical companies were able to thrive without backlash.

Now, in an age where a consumer is a Wikipedia article away from being an expert on corporate responsibility and has the power to then inform and influence their network, these companies are being forced to change their ways.

The pioneers of the internet envisioned a better world through the sharing of information and bringing people together, and as we are now so used to knowing exactly what’s happening in the world around us, we have been transformed into socially conscious consumers without even knowing it.

According to a 2010 UK poll by Globescan, 86% of consumers feel a personal responsibility to ensure workers are fairly compensated. More than half are likely to recommend a Fairtrade product to their friends.

We no longer simply want transparency from organisations about their dealings and misdeeds, we expect it. Investing money into a product or service must now come with the guarantee that all business practices and output are morally just and environmentally sustainable. If not, we’ll make them pay – by telling the world about it.

Ford joined a handful of big companies that pulled advertising instantly as the public repulsion toward last week’s News of the World scandal lit up Twitter and the blogosphere. While News of the World has since been disbanded, Ford made an intelligent move to get out early and release a statement: “Ford is a company which cares about the standards of behaviour of its own people and those it deals with externally.”

Ford has spent a lot of time and money monitoring social media and it has paid in dividends as the online community collectively celebrated the move to cut ties with the paper.

We should applaud business owners who take the initiative to act ethically, sometimes to the detriment of their bottom line, and by the same measure it is our responsibility as consumers to call them out when they don’t.

However the much-maligned ferocity and almost destructive speed of social networking sites can cause these changes to happen reactively and artificially in order to appear progressive. In the United States a not-so-widely-reported scandal shows this perfectly.

The Village Voice Media Group are currently in court defending charges of aiding and abetting child prostitution by not sufficiently investigating the advertisers using their classifieds site, Backpage.com. Ashton Kutcher, the ruling king of Twitterland, publicly tweeted to American Airlines and Dominos calling on them to pull their advertisements from the Village Voice site.

The airline replied: @aplusk We will address this IMMEDIATELY. Can you please DM us detail of the site, including a link?

Though American Airlines have managed to save some face and to some people even boosted their credentials, it is disappointing that only after a public humiliation would they consider cutting off ties with a questionable media partner. At least, one could concede, they did something.

Some companies have unwisely chosen not to engage with their critics at all, such as the home and office supply chain Officeworks.

While questions on their Facebook page about staplers and printers are answered quickly and with enjoyment, the page is mostly flooded with complaints that have been intentionally ignored. They relate to Officeworks stocking Reflex paper who are set to lose their environmental accreditation if they don’t stop logging in high conservation areas in Victoria.

What was once a portal for Officeworks customer service is now evidence of a company not up-to-date with the demands of the socially conscious consumer.

So in an age where the social consciousness is hyperactive, news spreads feverishly and accountability is expected, what can businesses do to ensure a bright future for their brand?

Be aware – Know who your partners and clients are, and what they do. Know who your customers are and what they care about. Social media is a great place to start to see how the community is talking about you or your industry, even if you only go to listen.
Be proactive – If you believe you have a moral imperative to improve something within your company, talk about solving it internally and execute it rather than wait to be caught out.
Be genuine – None of this will work if your actions are tokenistic. Similar to how it is bad manners to boast about how much money you have donated to charity, your company should take pride in their responsible practices without being cocky.