Do You Need a Social Media Policy?
Do You Need a Social Media Policy?

Do You Need a Social Media Policy?

Social media is quickly moving from an emerging form of communication to the mainstream. So, just like in the days when companies had to figure out how to deal with the use of email at work, now they have to figure out how to deal with Facebook and all other new media venues. A social media policy outlines for employees the corporate guidelines or principles of communicating in the online world.

First, let's define social media. Social media is more than just Facebook and Twitter. You need to consider YouTube, Flickr, social news sites, social bookmarking sites and blogs. Employees should be aware that your definition of social media includes any type of website or forum where conversation or comments occur in the online world.

Next, define why your business is using social media. Most companies participate to:
  • engage current and potential customers in authentic conversation and positively influence their buying decisions
  • generate traffic (to a blog, website or brick-and-mortar location), leads and conversions
  • establish thought leadership in your industry
  • share the company's culture and brand in a genuine, professional manner
  • take customer service to a new level
Unless you have just one employee who will be handling your social media efforts, you need to be proactive and cover your bases by creating and disseminating a social media policy. It will help your company avoid trouble and give important guidance to your employees, both at work and on their own time. It doesn't have to be a long, weighty document. Most policies have no more than 10 bullet points. It only needs to include what is necessary to protect the company legally and financially, and to be an aid to transparency and clear communications.

From a legal perspective, there are two important points to consider:
  1. Employers need to be upfront with employees that they have no right to privacy with respect to social networking. Use language such as "Employer reserves the right to monitor employee use of social media regardless of location (i.e., at work on a company computer or on personal time with a home computer)."
  2. Employees need to be aware that company policies on anti-harassment, ethics and company loyalty extend to all forms of communication (including social media) both inside and outside the workplace. In other words, that bashing your organization/boss/co-workers online can lead to consequences at work.
Here are several basics your social media policy should cover:
  • Who can represent the company using social media
  • How the company is portrayed
  • General expectations on topics
  • Standards for treating co-workers, administration, vendors, clients/customers and the general public
  • Confidentiality requirements for your company and your company's clients
  • Expectations for social media conduct during the employee's non-work hours
There are many templates and examples available online. Some sites have a great compilation of social media policy samples from companies all across the spectrum, or you can research the policies for the leaders in your field on your own.

Three specific topics your policy should cover are:
  1. Branding Standards
    You can't have people making up their own logos and color schemes for the company. If your marketing department has a style guide, put the relevant sections in your corporate policy document. It saves everybody a lot of headaches if social media participants can easily create an online profile with a company approved logo and color scheme. Make the resources they need available, and you'll save everybody time while helping to ensure a consistent, professional online presence.
  2. Language and Information Standards
    What terms do you use to describe your product? Are there particular industry- or work-related terms that need to be associated with the product? Are there terms you NEVER want used with your product? Spell out these types of rules. Somebody from production may have no idea that the marketing company just sent out a press release where you said the margin for error in your product was .006%, or he may know the last test results he saw were .02%. Make sure everyone has the relevant facts so they can put your best foot forward.
  3. Behavioral Expectations
    State clearly what standards of performance you expect. If people know the rules and what is expected from them, they are less likely to make mistakes. A little personal responsibility and some common sense go a long way. But, people's opinions about common sense and good judgment differ, so it's a good idea to give them some guidelines. Here are a few:
    • When making a comment online, employees should use their name or identity. This helps your company establish authenticity and enables you to create relationships with prospective clients. Anonymous accounts will not have the same power.
    • Employees should focus on adding value to any conversation. This will help establish your company as a thought leader in your industry.
    • Follow copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws. Give credit where credit is due.
    • Share opinions respectfully. Employees should avoid posting anything they would not want their mother, spouse, or boss to read.
    • Employees must protect your company's confidential and proprietary information. Let them know that failure to observe this may affect their employment status.
    Your employees must also protect your company's reputation. You don't want to take yourself or the company too seriously, but employees should avoid insulting the company and their co-workers, even as a joke. They should also keep sensitive or potentially controversial work conversations private. People often forget that social media (and other forms of electronic communication) aren't private. It's like using a megaphone, and the fallout has the potential to damage your company's reputation.
Social media, or new media, is really media. Plain and simple. Many organizations with any kind of formal structure have a policy in place for working with media. Social media is merely an extension of what you currently have in place. Writing a policy is simply a matter of letting your employees know how to communicate the company message effectively, what they should and should not do, and the consequences for violating your guidelines.