Why is having a social media policy in place so critical? Because virtually 100% of companies are now involved in social media—whether they acknowledge it or not.
Even without any formal plan to use social media, every organization with more than a handful of employees (and many under that benchmark) is present in social media because people are talking about them. If no one else is discussing a company, its employees almost certainly are. Half of all Americans are now members of at least one social network, and that figure rises to 67% for 25- to 34-year olds. Those employees may be accessing social networks away from work and using them primarily for sharing pictures of their kids or planning their weekend activities, but workplace topics are all but certain to come up from time to time; how many people do you know who never talk about their company outside of the workplace?
Even one offhanded remark about a coworker, customer, product or financial situation can damage a company’s reputation. While no enterprise can avoid negative comments in the social media realm completely, all companies can at least minimize the downside potential by providing employees with clear guidelines for any work-related postings.
As a guide to crafting an effective social media policy, you can emulate or combine ideas from one or more of the many social media policy examples now posted online, including the 57 social media policy examples from Dave Fleet or the more than 100 examples posted by Ralph Paglia. Or, if that seems overwhelming, use the outline below as a guide.
Essential Topics for an Organizational Social Media Policy
Introduction and Definitions
Provide a short introduction and then define what you mean by “social media.” While this may seem obvious, its best to be explicit and avoid assuming knowledge (just consider the current leadership in Washington DC for support on that last point). Social media sites include the following:
- • Social networking sites (e.g. LinkedIn, Facebook, Plaxo, Hi5, etc.)
- • Social sharing sites (e.g. YouTube, SlideShare, Flickr, etc.)
- • Forums and discussion boards
- • Wikis
- • Blogs
- • Microblogging sites (e.g. Twitter, identi.ca, Jaiku, etc.)
- • Social bookmarking sites (e.g. Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit, etc.)
- • Review sites (Epinions, Yelp, ChoiceVendor, etc.)
Social Media Objectives
What does your organization hope to accomplish through social media? What are the primary goals? Share this information with employees. Are you aiming to increase sales and/or leads? Increase brand awareness? Position the company as an industry thought leader? Improve customer service? Recruit more effectively? All of the above? Sharing your mission with employees gives them ownership and the opportunity to be part of the efforts and support those goals.
Guidelines for Social Media Use
This is the most critical element of the policy, the area where the ground rules are made explicit. Which topics are acceptable for discussion in social media, and which are taboo? Is use of social media sites permitted in the workplace? Is personal use ever allowed at work? Employees can’t follow the rules if they don’t know them.
Such rules will vary widely from firm to firm depending on your environment. A single-location restaurant or small retailer operates in a much different realm than a large public company or an organization in a heavily regulated industry such as health care or financial services. The rules need to set proper limits for your circumstances without, hopefully, being a straitjacket.
Rules may include:
- • Never disclose information that is proprietary, private or commercially sensitive.
- • Respect copyright. Don’t use images or content generated elsewhere without permission.
- • Be honest and transparent. Never post about the company while posing as someone else.
- • Where appropriate, use a disclaimer (e.g. “The views expressed here are my own and don’t necessarily reflect those of XYZ Corporation.”).
- • Never discuss specific customers, except when referring to published information (such as an approved case study or success story from Marketing).
- • Be respectful. Never use social media as a platform to disparage coworkers, supervisors or suppliers.
- • Add value. Your input will be most valued, and reflect best on the company, when it contributes to a conversation, answers a question or solves a problem.
- • When in doubt, ask. Point employees to appropriate resources for questions about specific circumstances where they are unsure how to contribute or respond.
Guidelines for Content creators (bloggers, presenters, video, podcasts etc.)
If your company actively produces content for social media consumption, your policy will need a specific section addressing the best practices for creating content. For example, effective social media commentary should be informational rather than overtly promotional. Blog comments should be responded to within a reasonable period of time. Twitter is a conversational platform, not a broadcasting medium. While the tone of blog posts and other social media content is informal (not “corporate speak”) it should nonetheless be professional.
A social media policy is a mix of guidelines for effective use of social media and rules for acceptable and unacceptable content — with consequences for breaking those rules (for both the organization and the individual) clearly spelled out.
Drafting an effective social media policy is an essential early step in making sure that, whatever your firm’s overall approach to social media, employees are aware of the goals and rules. With that understanding in place, all of your people can help contribute to achieving your company’s social media objectives — or at least not thwart them.