Tips for Drafting Effective Corporate Social Media Policies

by Intersection Consulting

Online communications channels have become intricately interwoven into our social fabric. The overwhelming majority of young people use Facebook regularly, and adoption among older audiences continues to rise.

Just as we use the telephone and e-mail to communicate with our colleagues, friends, and family, people of all ages are also increasingly using social media to share.

That means most of your company’s employees are using social media throughout the day to contact friends and associates, make plans, and organize activities.

Since those interactions are often discoverable after the fact, organizations are developing social media policies to provide employees with clear-cut guidelines of what is and is not permissible use.

Before social media, public disclosure issues were often relegated to a paragraph in an organization’s code of conduct policy that was written to restrict unofficial spokespersons from releasing official company statements through conventional channels like the mainstream media or press releases.

But today, if I were to happen to have a discussion between an employee of a company and someone else about anything related to the category in which the Company competes, that discussion would probably impact my perception of that organization. And it would probably, in many cases, have more of an impact than a company’s marketing copy or official company line.

In this blog post, inspired by a discussion with Chris Boudreaux and Paul Gillin about developing corporate social media policies, I’ll suggest seven aspects of social media policy development you probably haven’t considered:

1.  Sometimes You Can’t Stop Blocking — Shel Holtz maintains a website called Stop Blocking to compel organizations to loosen access to social media sites from within corporate networks.   But in industries like financial services and insurance,  it may be that the reason the company is on lockdown is because the current social media tools lack the necessary audit trail to comply with government regulations. Regulators may require companies to store communications for several years, and unless the company’s CRM solution accommodates social media, this may be impossible.

2.  A Winning Business Case is Key — I recently spoke with Brian Solis about how he builds the business case for social media initiatives inside companies, which you can listen to as a podcast.   Chris Boudreaux says organizations can and do turn on and off access to social media sites quickly, so don’t assume that because a company is blocking access to social media sites, it’s in some way going to take them longer to come up to speed.  You can listen to my discussion with Brian here.

3. Organizational Complexity is More Important than Size — The more business units there are, and the greater variety of subcultures that exist,  the longer it takes to develop and initiate a corporate social media policy. So, if you find competing agendas among the various stakeholders involved in developing and approving a corporate social media policy, it will probably take longer to accomplish it.

4. Strong Executive Leadership Eases the Way — Leaders must think ahead of their employees and establish policies to protect them and the organization. Those protections are even more critical if employees use social media as their primary job function. “The best policies are born out of a desire to utilize social media to advance corporate objectives and protect the employees and the company. And that takes an understanding of the business, which is usually strongest among the folks running the business,” says Chris Boudreaux.

5. Legalese Can Kill a Social Media Policy — Like American linguist William Lutz, whom I spoke with in this podcast about the dangers of doublespeak, Chris Boudreaux agrees there’s not much sense in a policy if the people it’s designed to guide can’t understand.  Policies should be written so they can be understood without the aid of legal counsel.  And since many companies make fair social media policies public, it may also be a good idea for those charged with writing the policy to collaborate with the marketing or public relations departments to ensure it accurately reflects the brand’s characteristics.

6. Policy Can Also Shape Opinion — Fairness can also be an intelligent objective of the social media policy. Many organizations make their social media policy available on the corporate website, Where it appears as a testament to the organization’s trust and respect for its employees. Harsh language and overly strict guidelines may reflect poorly on the organization and, by association, your product brand or service.

7. Be Realistic About the Impact of Your Policy on the Organization —  In most cases, it’s probably unrealistic to think you will change a company’s management style or corporate personality with a social media policy draft.  Social media policy needs to support the existing leadership style of the organization. For example, if the organization is inclusive and collaborative in its management style, that will lead to one type of social media policy. On the other hand, if you’re in a station is commanding control, like Apple Computer, that will lead to a different type of social media policy. It may be naive to think you can change an organization’s leadership or management style through social media policy.

It is the responsibility of those charged with developing a social media policy to create one that supports the company’s objectives in a way compatible with their existing business.  “You or I may not like many of the answers many leaders arrive at. But we have a choice to not work for those people,” says Chris Boudreaux.

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