Social media policies are not big sticks

A number of people have spoken to me about their need to implement a social media policy and what I have found is that many of those people are unsure what this “social media policy” really is and what it is intended to achieve. They recognise a need for this document and want to have one developed. Part of my work is to help clients understand what social media policies are generally designed to achieve and how they can be used beneficially within organisations which struggle with the issues increased social media engagement introduce to the mix.

A story about the Commonwealth Bank social media policy broke the other day (I read the story on The Financial Brand site – thanks to Jeanette Verster for the link) which is a case study for how not to frame a social media policy and how not to approach social media usage. It is a shocking story of how one company saw a social media policy as a big stick which it has tried to use to beat its employees into submission. The bank, through the social media policy, even seeks to force employees to not only spy on their friends but assist the bank in action it may take against those friends for offending the bank.

I first wrote about social media policies just over a year ago and I asked whether your company has a social media policy? At the time social media policies were relatively unknown in South Africa but word quickly spread about these documents and how essential they are. Approaches to social media policies have varied. Some organisations have treated them as marketing fluff documents and other companies, like Commonwealth Bank, have treated them like something more akin to IT policies which tend to be more concerned with IT infrastructure abuses and, consequentially, tend to be punitive and intolerant. In Commonwealth Bank’s case, its social media policy was accurately described as “draconian” and was offensive to employees’ rights.

My take on social media policies (and your mileage will vary depending on who your lawyer is) is that social media policies should be designed to be partly educational, partly regulatory and partly a framework for social media use, within the organisation and/or in employees’ personal capacity. The simple fact is that employees often make comments on Twitter or Facebook which range from being ill-advised to malicious and these comments can, and often do, impact negatively on the company’s brand. Malicious employees will acted maliciously regardless but I believe that most employees are uninformed about the risks their activities pose to their employers. This is one reason for a social media policy. If it is properly drafted it will educate employees about the risks social media poses generally and how their social media use can prejudice their employer and its brand. The policy can even educate employees about the negative consequences for them personally if they mis-use social media.

Sugar cane workers resting at the noon hour, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico (LOC)

That said, a social media policy isn’t just about teaching employees about social media. It must serve the employer’s marketing, strategic and legal requirements. Social media policies form part of a company’s policy framework and while they usually have a very different tone to conventional policies (if drafted effectively), they are still an important tool the employer has to protect its reputation.

Why the emphasis on reputation? Because on the social Web and in social life generally, reputation is largely what many companies rely on to continue trading and adding value. Complaints sites like Get Closure are effective platforms consumers use to correct the power imbalance that exists between brands and consumers and to give themselves a voice which they use to take companies to task for poor service. The same principle applies to social networks like Twitter and Facebook and these social networks are quite possibly far more effective when it comes to spreading word about poor service, poor quality and consumer dissatisfaction generally.

As I have mentioned, a social media policy should educate employees about social media and its risks and, at the same time, establish parameters for what the employer considers to be acceptable use of social media in the context of its brand and the employment relationship. One of the underlying legal principles here is the employee’s general obligations to further the employer’s business interests, to be respectful and to be obedient. At the same time employers must be careful not to overstep their authority and infringe employees’ privacy, association, expressive and other rights.

Employers are also increasingly finding themselves faced with a new communication paradigm. Employees are empowered by new communications technologies like smartphones which enable them to access their Twitter, Facebook and other online social services anywhere and anytime. They will do so on their tea and smoke breaks and if they can’t access these services from their work computers, they will do it on their mobile devices, from home or elsewhere. As one attendee at a workshop I spoke at recently for a large creative agency pointed out, employees are also increasingly required to access services like Twitter and Facebook to do their jobs more effectively. It is no longer so easy to draw clear lines between work and personal communications and relationships. Companies must adapt to this new reality and make an effort to collaborate with their employees on how best to further and protect the company’s interests while acknowledging, perhaps even fostering, employees’ desire to engage with each other, their friends and families using these online services and tools.

I just want to caution against blindly copying other companies’ social media policies. Developing and maintaining an effective social media policy (social media policies should be treated as evolving frameworks which must change as needed) is not a simple process of just writing something up and publishing it. Because of its nature, it should be tailored for the company’s specific needs. As the Financial Brand article advises:

Just be sure you exercise some common sense. You don’t want to blindly copy the mistakes of other financial institutions. Just because another organization has a social media policy doesn’t mean that policy is any good or right for you.

Social media policies are complex documents designed to strike a balance between a number of competing considerations and tensions. They are not meant to be big sticks but rather opportunities to collaborate with employees to take better advantage of the social Web and its benefits.

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