Facebook is closing in at 300 million users. Twitter is the fastest growing social site with 55 million. And LinkedIn is already the favorite child of over 65 million professional business users. How many of your employees, customers, and vendors are on these websites? And, what are they saying about you, your company, and your practices? Better yet – how are you responding? Having a social media policy in place does not mean that you get to dictate your image. But, you do get to interact responsibly in the conversation that dictates your image. And, you get to help your employees do the same.
The world is changing fast, and how we communicate is changing even faster. It isn’t just Gen Y that blogs and twitters – it is a growing phenomenon embraced by all generations. There are great benefits to today’s technology and its widespread use, but there are also some risks as dictated by Raj Malik of Network Solutions (http://blog.networksolutions.com/2009/sxsw-follow-up-corporate-social-media-guidelines/).
Unauthorized or inappropriate commentary or posts online can:
• Get the Company, and you, in legal trouble with the U.S. and other government agencies, other companies, customers or the general public.
• Diminish the Company’s brand name by creating negative publicity for The Company, owners and partners as well as yourself or your team.
• Cause damage to The Company by releasing non-public information or proprietary information.
• Cost us the ability to get patents or undermine our competitive advantage.
• Cost you your job at the Company.
Here are 10 steps to creating your own social media policy.
1) Decide where you stand. A policy is only as good as the company that implements it. Essentially, the lines are drawn and you have to take a stand. How far is your company willing to go in the social media sphere? Will you choose to only communicate in reaction to what someone else says? Will you be proactive in engaging the community (consumers and bloggers)? Without an overall attitude about social media, it can be very hard to create a policy.
2) Determine what constitutes social media. While a blog and LinkedIn may easily be categorized as social media – what about online video? What about Twitter? What really constitutes social media? You must have your own (preferably) written definition. This is especially true because new websites and tools emerge all the time. My personal definition of social media is any website or medium (including video) which allows for communication in the open.
3) Clarify who owns what. Does your company have a Facebook page that is handled by the head of HR? What happens when that person leaves? Who owns that page? That content? James C. Roberts III of Global Capital Group Law offers this: “If there is an offer letter or employment contract, it would normally state who owns what (usually the company). Absent that, the law could default to ownership by the company (but depending upon the state). On the other hand, if the company has turned a blind eye to personal use during work hours then it could be attacked. And, it will depend upon the extent to which what is created is based on company property (IP).” (This is not to be construed as legal advice. Please consult with your own attorneys for such.) To keep things simple, make sure you and your employees know what is theirs and what belongs to the company.
4) Keep confidential information private. While other policies may address the issue of keeping proprietary and personal information confidential – it never hurts to readdress it in terms of social networking. Due to the casual nature of these sites, it is easier to give away key information without realizing it. Even private messages aren’t always secure. Each site is has its own fallibilities. Best to just never share any confidential or proprietary information using social media – publicly or privately.
5) Decide who is responsible. While it is important that everyone understands the company’s social media policy, it is also important that one person or a team of people be responsible for managing social media efforts. If a customer does make a public complaint – who will answer it? Do they need to forward that to another department? Social media doesn’t automatically fall under the job description of the web developer, PR person, or HR manager, etc. All employees should be encouraged to interact and represent the brand, but there should be one or a few who are proactively handling queries. The best way to find a social media advocate within the company is to seek out the one person or team of people who are most passionate about communicating with customers in such a manner. They may already be doing so without you knowing it. Seek those people out and train them well.
6) Dictate the rules of engagement – without being a dictator. It is a fine line to walk – allowing employees the freedom to engage and protecting the company at the same time. However, it can be done. You can’t stop employees from communicating using the new mediums but you can set some ground rules that work for everybody’s benefit. Take a look at Intel’s social media policy: http://www.intel.com/sites/sitewide/en_US/social-media.htm. The Emerging Technology Department at the Air Force (yes, they have one!) has created this flow chart of their own guidelines: http://blogcouncil.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/12/air-force-blog-assessment.jpg
7) Address taboo topics. While your employees probably already exercise good common sense while participating online, it never hurts to clarify specifically what is off limits. Raj Malik of Network Solutions offers this partial list:
a. Topics in which The Company is involved in litigation or could in the future: (i.e. policy, customer disputes, etc.)
b. Non-public information of any kind about The Company, including, but not limited to, policies and strategy
c. Illegal or banned substances and narcotics
d. Pornography or other offensive illegal materials
e. Defamatory, libelous, offensive or demeaning material
f. Private/Personal matters of yourself or others
g. Disparaging/threatening comments about or related to anyone
h. Personal, sensitive or confidential information of any kind
8) Have a system for monitoring the social sphere. A social media policy doesn’t do much good if you don’t actually monitor the space where the conversation is happening. There are plenty of free and paid tools to monitor the online space. There are also firms like ours that offer reputation management services. You can read about some of the reputation management tools available.
9) Make training easily available. Think win-win. Nobody likes to be bossed around – especially when it comes to their own social networking. However, most people are very open to learning about how to better leverage these sites to further their own careers and brands. Most people who make mistakes online just don’t know any better. If you expect your employees to utilize the social networking tools properly, you must provide training. What they put out there isn’t just a reflection of the company; it is also a reflection of them. Make it a win-win for everybody.
10) Have a Crisis Plan. Let’s say you have a perfect social media policy in place, what happens if an employee breeches it? What happens if the people you laid off decide to start a Facebook hate group? Or, if a disgruntled customer creates a YouTube video (hey, it happened to United Airlines!)? The worst action is inaction. You must act immediately if a crisis occurs. Ignoring it or worse – trying to bury it – will only increase the backlash. This is given that the mistake was truly yours. I am not referring to wild accusations or remarks that have no basis. Ideally, you have already been proactive in your efforts. You have a company blog, you have a twitter account, and you have some influencers as friends who will vouch for your company. Either way, you will need to take corrective action right away. First, contact the person responsible. Apologize, clarify – and do what you need to in order to rectify the mistake. Second, make a public announcement apologizing and clarifying. Also, address steps put into place that will keep such a debacle from occurring again. In social media, transparency is crucial. This is why step# 1 is, well, step#1 – decide where you stand.