Considerations for developing a social media policy

March 2, 2010

Power continues to shift from the centralized voice of an organization to the chatter of individuals. Not only are clients, vendors and consumers able to tell the world about your company, but your employees are also contributing to the conversation.

As a PR practitioner, you need to monitor what all of these stakeholders are saying about you on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Recent buzz about social media policies has caused many PR practitioners to consider what these policies should include and how closely communicators and executives should control the message.

Organizations such as the NFL, the SEC, Harvard University and the Associated Press recently unveiled new social media policies. Media and Web 2.0 pundits quickly criticized the policies for being too restrictive and limiting transparency.

A policy that discourages the use of social media may represent a risk-averse traditional approach to communications.

For instance, the NFL’s social media policy hinders some of social media’s benefits. The rule states, “No updates are permitted to be posted by the individual himself or anyone representing him during this prohibited time on his personal Twitter, Facebook or any other social media account.”  This ban for players, coaches and league personnel is active 90 minutes before and after the game.

It’s crucial to have a social media policy for your organization or tweak your existing policy to ensure that you have protected your brand.  A well-constructed policy ensures that the organization is speaking with a unified voice.

So how do you begin creating a social media policy?

“Your strategic goals will shape policy. Start with the end in mind and ask the right questions,” says Brett Turner,  APR, director of public relations for Jackson Marketing Group in Greenville, S.C., who frequently assists clients with developing policies. “You have to listen and understand first before you can plan. The most important part is up front — listening, understanding and planning. Only after that should you execute.”

When it comes time to create a policy, you need to keep the following factors in mind:

Understand the culture, then develop the policy. When developing a social media policy, you must first evaluate your current work culture. Is the organization’s culture fun, progressive and flexible? Or is your culture calculated, serious and traditional?

Your policy must complement the framework of your organization’s culture. Employees should be able to easily adapt to the policy’s content.

If you work with a progressive organization that has chosen to embrace social media, then your policy should inspire employees to be involved with Web 2.0 tools and provide clear and tactical guidelines.

Define who can initiate media on behalf of the organization. There are two schools of thought on this subject: multiple voices or one unified company voice. If you take a “the more, the merrier” approach, then your policy should communicate that anyone can blog and tweet on behalf of the organization.

If you encourage your employees to contribute to your organization’s social media presence, then establish a monitoring practice so that you can easily screen communications for consistency, clarity and content.  Also, consider offering training sessions so that employees can learn how to best use the applications.

If you take a unified-voice approach, then this should be made clear to your employees.  Typically, with this approach, the marketing communications team oversees the initiation of social media applications on behalf of the organization.

Responsibilities include observing and shutting down any noncompliant groups, pages and blogs and overseeing employee participation in the organization-supported applications. Many professional service-related organizations, such as law firms, choose this approach because it enables them to better control the communications representing the organization.

According to Art Kuesel, director of marketing consulting services with PDI Global, Inc., “A one-voice approach gives the communications department the ability to manage the initiative and helps to control the voice, while still allowing employees a level of freedom to communicate independently, as long as it falls within the approved initiatives and overall guidelines.”

For risk-averse organizations, the one-voice approach enables the organization to have a social media presence while maintaining some control of communications. However, the challenge of developing fresh content and monitoring employee participation may be time consuming — another challenge for an understaffed communications department.

Defining what’s personal and professional
Social media blurs the lines between what is considered personal and professional. Theoretically, people who identify themselves as employees or use a company e-mail for social media applications are representatives of the organization.

“There is a fine line between personal and professional these days. So much of our professional lives help define us and vice versa,” says Turner. “Policy needs to address that, but policy also needs to be flexible as there are areas that aren’t black and white.”

There will be employees in the workplace who create blogs and engage in other applications using their professional e-mail address as an identifier. To avoid the risk of affiliating individual personal opinions with the organization, consider including a recommended disclaimer for employees to use on social networking sites.

There are a variety of ways to craft a disclaimer. For instance:  “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the philosophy, strategies or opinions of XYZ company.” 

Related: Five key elements of a social media policy
According to an article by Sharlyn Lauby on Mashable.com, here are a few items that your policy should incorporate:
• Leverage the positive. Show employees the benefit of engaging in social media.
• Focus on what employees can do rather than what they can’t do.
• Be responsible. Exercise good judgment for what you write and clearly define the consequences of any unethical behavior.
• Be authentic.  Always state who you are and who you represent.
• Bring value. Provide worthwhile information and a relevant perspective.
• Respect copyrights and fair use. Give credit and seek permission when applicable.

Copyright © 2010 PRSA. All rights reserved.


Alice Grey Harrison, APR
Alice Grey Harrison, APR is the marketing communications manager for Dixon Hughes PLLC, a top-20 U.S. accounting firm. Contact: agharrison@dixon-hughes.com or via Twitter @alicegrey.
Email: agharrison at dixon-hughes.com


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