Friday, March 12, 2010

The Importance of Creating a Social Media Policy

Posted by Katie Noonan

There seems to be a lot of buzz this week about corporate social media policy and how to effectively engage in social media without jeopardizing your company’s reputation or its bottom line. On Wednesday Reuters released their social media policy which prevents their journalists from breaking news on Twitter, essentially prohibiting them from scooping their employer. In the Public Relations Society of America’s March issue of Public Relations Tactics, Alice Grey Harrison, APR, offers some good advice on how to implement social media policies for employees.

At this point there’s little debate as to whether companies should be engaging in social media. Social media is a gamble for sure, but one that has paid off for many. The new debate has become how to manage your company’s social media presence to avoid gaffes, negative publicity or loss of control over your message and brand.

According to a report released on Feb. 3 by Manpower, an employment services firm, only one-fifth of companies have a formal social media policy for employees who use social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. To avoid confusion companies should absolutely implement social media policies, but it’s important that they consider a few things before doing so.

Harrison encourages companies to sit back and think about their company’s culture prior to developing their social media policy. I agree. If your organization has an informal, relaxed or otherwise progressive culture then your social media policy should reflect that. Likewise, if your company has a professional, formal or conservative culture then you’ll want to develop a social media policy in keeping with that atmosphere. Either way consistency is key.

Providing clear guidelines to employees is also key. Harrison outlines the two different schools of thought on this. Essentially, there’s the “unified front” approach where the company designates one department to head all social media communications and oversight. This approach works best for companies that are reluctant about engaging in Web 2.0 or those that tend to be more conservative in their message and brand.

If your company decides to go this route then you’ll want to communicate that to employees. Make sure that your policy stipulates that only designated employees are permitted to use social media on behalf of the organization.

There’s also the “all-in” approach, which I happen to prefer. Essentially, this strategy allows anyone in the organization to blog, tweet, etc. on its behalf. There are certainly risks to this strategy, but as an employee of a company that takes this approach I think it works for a lot of reasons.

First, it indicates to your employees that their input is valuable and that you trust and respect their opinion enough to permit them to speak on your company’s behalf. Everyone appreciates that kind of validation.

Second, it pushes the envelope in terms of your brand. By allowing anyone and everyone in the company to engage in social media you may discover some untapped talent that lies outside of your communications department. It also generates fresh content and ideas, which is essential for a successful social media campaign.

Whenever you’re venturing into a new realm there are risks. If your company decides to takes this approach, Harrison suggests, and I agree, that offering training sessions and setting certain guidelines in your social media policy is a good idea. You want to give employees that level of freedom without leaving your company vulnerable to a public relations snafu or worse, a lawsuit. One way to do this is to outline in your social media policy what is off limits for employees to discuss via social media and encourage them to ask if they’re not sure. Another way is to encourage employees to put disclaimers on their blogs or Facebook profiles that their views are not necessarily those of the company. Harrison suggests putting proposed disclaimer language in the social media policy.

The biggest take away should be that whatever your feelings are on social media and how you want your company to engage in it you need to communicate that to your employees. It will save you countless headaches and position the company to capitalize on the benefits of social media sites.

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