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Social media: The next corporate bully?

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Most people think of corporate bullying in terms of payment issues, where big companies impose draconian payment terms that can eventually put small operators out of business. But there is another side to corporate bullying, and that is when large companies, even those in the FTSE100, try to intimidate smaller rivals. It’s one of my pet hates.

We all like to think that bullying stops when we leave the playground, but sadly it’s not so, as the rise in social media provides a new channel for personal and corporate bullying to take hold. While social media makes it easy to reach a lot of people very quickly, the downside is that everything you put online stays around, even if you delete messages, images or even your entire account. Kent Police’s youth crime tsar Paris Brown, whose ill-advised tweets came back to haunt her is a case in point.

Online bullying has seen a rapid growth in the number of legal professionals specialising in cyber-law, with cases of defamation and anti-competitive practices now commonplace in the court room, along with a lot of bad publicity. I don’t blame victims for resorting to the law, there is a time for politely turning the other cheek and concentrating on your own business, and a time to be proactive.

I would advise business owners to exercise the same control over who runs their social media accounts and the messages they put out, as they do over any other element of maintaining a good business reputation. Social media accounts are usually run by marketing and PR professionals, many of whom will be members of professional bodies such as the CIM and CIPR. Their members sign up to a code of conduct and falling short of those standards – and so publicly too – could seriously impact an individual’s career.

In my time I’ve built and run several highly successful businesses, and while I don’t claim to be perfect, traditional values of honesty and integrity are close to my heart. That’s not just an altruistic stance either, maintaining fair play in business dealings makes commercial sense. Everyone wants to work with – or for – someone they trust to play with a straight bat.

But respect has to be a two-way street. When I was Managing Director of Mr Lazenby’s gourmet sausage company, we worked hard to be listed by several big supermarkets. Their size and standing make them notoriously difficult to deal with and while we were not bullied, we had some initial skirmishes as we settled into a strong business relationship, growing Mr Lazenbys into a £10m business and a major employer.

I really do not understand why big corporates feel the need to bully smaller competitors, but I’m guessing it comes from a feeling of insecurity and a fear about the success of their own business, similar to the playground bully who feels the need to define their social status within their peer group. It is particularly sad to see corporate bullies hounding start up businesses. Entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of the business world, particularly as we move towards economic recovery, and the UK cannot afford for their efforts to be quashed by big company bullies who try to engineer them out of the market because they are afraid of a bit of competition.

I’m a firm believer that achieving industry-leading status can be done through innovation, sound operating principles, and an appetite for managing risk. Add in quality products at the right price plus a great team of people, and you don’t need to use sharp practices or try to do your competitors down in order to succeed.

We can all learn from other businesses, and in my time as a business advisor and mentor as well as Chair of the Teesside Manufacturing Challenge, I’ve come across some great ideas and examples, but also some practices that I would never condone. Years ago I was given a good piece of advice, which was not to waste energy looking over your shoulder at what your competitors are doing, but to concentrate on driving your own business forward instead.

A sound piece of advice, and one that corporate bullies would do well to heed.

Valda Goodfellow is Managing director of Goodfellow and Goodfellow, and an entrepreneur in the food and hospitality sector.

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