Corporate bans on social media miss out on business advantages of fresh ways of engaging with clients and staff.

Although social media can revolutionise communication and enhance distinctiveness, many companies are ill-prepared to safeguard critical data, mitigate data leakage and control intellectual property.

Social media is changing how employees engage and communicate with one another and their clients. Some prefer to have a single online identity, blurring the division between the personal and the professional. The desire for access to social networking sites in the working day is part of this duality.

Social media has the potential to enhance a company's distinctiveness by transforming business processes in outward-facing functions such as, for example, recruitment, marketing, client relationship management and knowledge management.

Valued and connected
Owing to real-time sharing of information, collaboration and enriched relationships, social media has the potential to bring competitive advantage. It can also make employees feel valued and connected.

Social media is becoming more established in business, due to its ability to add value through solving client problems and providing quantifiable ROI, as well as increasing engagement with stakeholders, corporate/retail customers and end customers.

Businesses are able to patrol sites such as Twitter to see reactions to their products and create a more effective ad campaign. They can learn about customers via forums and mitigate the risk of losing customers by taking immediate action to satisfy any negative commentary.

At the same time, a company's online brand ambassadors can promote new products – or move the discussion in the right direction if its reputation is being threatened.

Treacherous new breed
Although there are many good reasons to embrace social media, businesses must adopt a proactive strategy to safeguard corporate networks and data. Social media is a very public forum that has the potential to damage a brand – and the downsides are potentially disastrous.

Information that flows freely between employees and their online followers can pose serious risks to a business. Network attacks, data leakage and theft, reputational damage and compliance issues are all risks that a business must address before it adopts social media or allows wholesale access to these sites over its network.

Employees may easily distort or leak critical business information and IP via social media. So businesses should set out appropriate online behaviours by employees via awareness programmes – and provide continuous support to underpin suitable behaviour.

Cyber attacks are dangerously effective on social media because they often generate messages that appear to come from trusted friends, but which actually direct users to sites that employ phishing schemes or malware.

Ambitious cyber criminals can gain access to sensitive data by infecting networks with malicious code that connects to Web 2.0 platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. As mobile devices run robust Web 2.0 applications, they will become the next target.

A treacherous new breed of hackers is using social media to infect corporate networks with malware and viruses, exploit vulnerable networks, steal IP and harm reputations. It is vital to invest in security solutions that scan traffic for malware, data leakage and other suspicious activity.

Clever footwork
Some guidelines: classify data so employees understand precisely what is sensitive. Then define the difference between a company-sponsored Twitter account and individual ones.

Fully train the workforce on social networking policies and the risks of social media. Establish who is responsible for types of communication and know how you will manage reputational damage.

Social networking can be a powerful enabler for change, but only if policies and technologies work hand in hand. It requires continuing teamwork between the business and information technology groups.