A Corporate Social Media Policy: Do You Really Need One?

The explosive growth of Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, and a host of other social networking tools has led to some significant opportunities for companies to promote their products and services in the Web 2.0 world. But it has also led to some significant risks as well.

SocialMediaSites

By definition, social media content is created by its users. Therefore, the content is not directly controlled by your company as it would be in the case of your official corporate marketing materials (Web site, collateral pieces, advertisements, etc.). Therein lies the potential risk. One way to help safeguard your organization is to publish an official corporate social media policy for your employees.

Questions You Should Be Asking Yourself

When considering whether or not you need to publish a social media policy, ask yourself a few questions. For example, do you know which of your employees are active in social media? Do you know what they’re saying about your company? Have you given them any guidelines as to what types of content are and are not acceptable?

The first step toward addressing these questions is to determine what stance your company should take toward social media. For instance, will employees be allowed or forbidden to participate on Twitter for personal reasons during business hours? How will that impact productivity, either positively or negatively? Who can and cannot participate in social media in an official capacity on behalf of your company?

What a Good Social Media Policy Should Contain

Your social media policy should begin by defining the term “social media” and detailing why a policy is needed in the first place. That way, your employees will better understand that the policy is not intended to restrict their activities online; rather, to protect the company from liability and brand damage. Explain how the company could be scarred by false or derogatory information on social media networks and how that information becomes a permanent part of the record on the Internet.

A well-written social media policy should also detail everything that your employees should and should not do when posting content online. For example, make it clear to the employee that he/she can or cannot:

* Identify himself/herself as an employee of the company
* Use the company name, logo, product photos, or other trademarked materials
* Discuss customers, partners, or other employees
* Offer recommendations for other employees (such as on LinkedIn)
* Post on social media sites during business hours

There are a few more obvious rules that should be included in your policy as well, such as forbidding employees to:

* Divulge proprietary or confidential information about the company, its products, and/or its services, including financial data, pricing, strategy, and the like

* Discuss or link to your competitors

* Talk directly to the media (those discussions should be referred to the corporate marketing department)

* Use vulgar words, ethnic or racial slurs, or derogatory comments of any kind

The policy should also detail the consequences that will occur when an employee doesn’t follow the instructions detailed in the policy, including stating that the offender’s employment may be terminated for repeated or egregious offenses. It should also cover the responsibility of an employee to report the actions of another employee who violates any of the terms of policy.

Before publishing your social media policy, it should be submitted to your human resources department and legal department (or corporate attorney) for review. After that, you should also ask your executive team to review it as well.

Employees

Make Sure Your Employees Understand and Follow Your Policy

In addition to announcing your new social media policy to all company employees after it has been properly vetted, the policy should also be included as a permanent addition to your employee manual. It should also be posted on your company intranet site.

Once your policy has been published and distributed, you might want to consider adding some follow-up procedures to ensure that the policy is being followed properly, such as:

* Sending monthly or quarterly e-mail announcements to all employees, reminding them about the importance of the policy and where to find it
* Making a list of all social media participants and regularly monitoring their activities online, at least by doing spot checks

How Your Industry Could Impact the Content in Your Policy

Some of the content in your social media policy could be—and should be—influenced by the particular needs of your specific industry.

For example, in the retail space, confidential supplier product information is one of the most common areas in which your company can be exposed. “At Best Buy, we are very committed to being an open and transparent brand, as we believe this builds trust,” said Barry Judge, Chief Marketing Officer at Best Buy. “However, in doing so, we need to be very mindful that not all information we have can be made public on social media sites, especially as it relates to proprietary manufacturer data that has been provided to us by our supplier partners.”

If you’re in the financial services industry, extraordinary care must be taken on social media networks to protect your confidential financial information. Eddie Reeves, CEO of Reeves Strategy Group and former Vice President of Media Relations for Merrill Lynch, said, “Obviously, when you’re talking about managing OPM—other people’s money—and the information related to that money, you have to take caution and discretion to a whole new level. That isn’t to say you can’t or shouldn’t use social media, because I believe you should, and I advise my clients to do so—not just with confidence, but aggressively. You just have to think carefully through your policies and procedures. Fortunately, most of the rules and policies that financial services firms already have on the books are usually sufficient with a bit of tweaking.”

The healthcare industry is fraught with social media concerns because of the potential liability issues related to medical content posted online and recommendations about other health-related sites, as well as the confidentiality requirements surrounding patient records, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Sam Mallikarjunan, Chief Marketing Officer at American Health, noted, “There is a delicate balance between the interest in utilizing new technology to engage and educate consumers and protecting consumer information. While a social media site that allows people with medical conditions to network or a site that allows patients to track their medical calendars may be valuable and useful, we must be mindful of the chaotic nature of the Internet and its vulnerability to privacy violations.” Mallikarjunan added, “A good social media policy must have mechanisms in place to guide employees towards the proper ways in which to engage customers. Furthermore, we must ensure that employees understand the depth of social media and the need to maintain a professional and respectable presence on all publicly available mediums.”

Other industries that may require special content in their corporate social media policies include travel and hospitality, publishing, media and entertainment, professional services, and government.

Companies

Examples of Corporate Social Media Policies

A number of major corporations have published their social media policies on the Internet for everyone to see. Here are a few examples:

* Cisco Systems
* ESPN
* Gartner
* Hill & Knowlton
* HP
* Intel
* New York Times
* Opera Software
* Plaxo
* Porter Novelli
* Sun Microsystems
* Wal-Mart
* Wells Fargo

Finally, here’s an easy-to-use template from SHIFT Communications that you may want to use as a starting point.

For more information about how you can protect your company with a customized corporate social media policy, contact Social2B.

Kent Huffman is the CMO at BearCom Wireless. You can follow him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/KentHuffman

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8 thoughts on “A Corporate Social Media Policy: Do You Really Need One?

  1. This is a very timely subject that most companies need to address. Kent makes several valid points about the core reasons to publish a corporate social media policy for employees. Minimizing risks for the firm is certainly critical and providing guidelines to employees can prevent them from firing at will. Employees may not realize that they bear an important responsibility for the brand they may Tweet about. A brand image is a precious commodity and employees must always be aware of the risk of damaging the brand. Without an official corporate social media policy serious issues will develop. Kent includes a great list of points that a social media policy should contain. There is an old saying: do the before math so you don’t have to do the aftermath.

  2. Kent, this is a blockbuster post. Probably the most cogent and thorough I have seen on the topic. I have a post coming up Monday on a related topic and will reference this fine work. Really wonderful. Thank you!

    @markwschaefer

  3. Kent,

    Very useful overview of how to do this. I am evaluating how to implement an Social Media policy now with my company and will make this required reading for our management.

    @markschaefer – thanks for sharing this!

  4. Some interesting observations. One concern, however is the link between home and work. I agree fully that whilst using Social Media as an identified employee of the company a person should act in a way appropriate to the aims of the company. Where I don’t agree is that outside of this parameter a person should still act in this way.

    If I have a personal blog I should be free to express my views, regardless of whether they align with the company or not. Of course I should not disclose company secrets, but I see no more issue with expressing views online than in the pub.

    It should be down to me as the individual to determine what I wish to post online and the effect that will have on “brand me.”

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