With the sun catching her iconic golden hair at a Waterfront hotel overlooking the Atlantic, Emma Sadleir looks every bit the part of a glamorous lawyer on an American TV show. She launches into a discussion about South Africa’s liberal approach to social media law – and what a fascinating case study we were for the rest of the world during the Oscar Pistorius trial, for which she was a correspondent for both the BBC and Carte Blanche.
Interestingly, though, Emma has used her “Barbie-of-media-law” image consciously to educate South Africans – especially children – about the consequences of their online actions. “Our only frame of reference is what happens on Suits and Ally McBeal – and it’s not even vaguely similar, so I found the media circus that erupted around the Oscar Pistorius trial was incredibly effective as an educational tool,” she says, adding, “I think all courts should be televised.”
When it comes to managing your reputation, Emma says, “I’ve always liked what Warren Buffet said, that it takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” pausing for effect. “Nowadays, it takes five seconds,” referring to the speed at which digital media operates. “The whole world’s trying to work out the rules at the same time, so the laws are fairly global – except for America – they do their own thing with the first amendment.”
So, what advice does Emma have for businesses on building a good reputation?
1. Social media won’t go away
From listed corporations and large media companies to schools across South Africa, a great number of businesses have approached Emma for advice on their social media policies. “Too many companies don’t think that they should be dealing with social media,” she says, “but I believe that all companies should have a social media policy.”
She uses an example: “Say you’re working at the front desk of a hotel and a celebrity checks in and you post: ‘Whoop-whoop, guess who’s staying at the hotel!’ – that can have a big impact on the company.”
“Because it’s all so new, it’s about getting people to understand,” says Emma, “People just don’t know what the repercussions are. The law is there – it’s just about educating your employees to mitigate your risk.”
2. If you won’t put it on a billboard, don’t put it online
Not many people realise the responsibility that comes with having a public voice. “It used to be that today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrapping,” Emma says. “That’s not the case anymore. The internet is a very permanent place.”
“The screenshot really is the devil,” she says. “If you’re chatting to someone on WhatsApp, talking about how horrible your boss is – they post it online – you’re screwed. One rogue tweet affects the whole company.”
Emma cites the pandemonium that erupted on Twitter over Justine Sacco’s racist remark – that she could not contract Aids because she was white. Between the time Sacco posted the tweet at Heathrow and flew to Cape Town, #hasjustinelandedyet went viral across the globe, her company, IAC, had issued a formal apology and she lost her job. Social media posts such as these can have devastating effects on brands.
To Emma, privacy is your most precious commodity in the digital age. “If you don’t want it to exist, don’t let it.”
3. Everybody’s a celebrity
Having a voice means you have to manage your reputation. Using a fairly typical example, Emma says: “Before you meet someone, you Google them – see what comes up. In the same way, when you apply for a job, they’re going to check you out online.”
While celebrity culture might still seem like the refuge of the trivial, Emma believes we have a lot to learn from celebrities about reputation management. “It’s really about being conscious that we’ve all become celebrities and about starting to treat yourself like a celebrity – as well as your friends, your colleagues and your family. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s the reality of it.”
Whether as a business or in a personal capacity, Emma suggests adopting a default mindset of, “If people take pictures of you, it’s going to be published.” But, she adds, “The way privacy laws are set up in South Africa is that the more you look after your privacy, the more privacy you will have.”
4. There’s no better publicity than a happy workforce
The plus side of living in a digital world is that it has forced organisations to reconsider the way they do business. “Cognisant of the risk of social media, a lot of companies have adopted a policy of, ‘No one’s allowed to talk about us on social media’, but really, there’s no better publicity than a happy workforce,” Emma says. She suggests that companies should rather improve their business culture than try to stop their employees from talking about them.
“If all of a company’s people talk about what a cool company it is to work for – you can’t buy that,” she says, “so I think, trusting your employees and empowering them to use social media tools effectively is the best recipe for success.” She goes on to say, “But I appreciate that it can be very difficult.”
5. Every business is different
“The marketing people will tell you that you’ve got to be where your clients are – that all companies should be on social media,” says Emma, “But I don’t think that’s always necessary. What businesses need to understand is that they’re on social media even if they don’t want to be.”
She explains: “Their employees are on social media, their clients are – but what I don’t agree with is that a lot of these marketing companies insisted that all business should have a Facebook page, for instance. I don’t think it’s always helpful,” Emma says. “I think sometimes it just creates a platform for complaints.”
Asking Emma about the future of social media, she goes quiet. A few moments later, she says, “Honesty is crucial…social media as a recruitment tool is a game changer…” She sits up. “Actually, I have no idea where we’re going. If you had told me six weeks ago that we’d all be playing Pokémon Go and that it would increase Nintendo’s shared market value by $9 Billion, I would have laughed at you.”
She feels, however, that people are reaching a saturation point – that social media addiction has become an active contributor to depression and that people are going to realise that real-world experiences are more valuable than virtual ones. “I always say, as far as the book of social media is concerned, we’re still reading the table of contents.”
Emma Sadleir will be speaking at nlighten’s business leadership event, Exec Think Tank, on 11 August 2016 at Equinox, Alice Lane, Sandton. To find out more about the event, visit http://bit.ly/1ZbeAkT or contact Nicola on 021 794 7533 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.