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Should your company have a social media policy?

November 12, 2010

By Sharlyn Lauby

Companies are realizing that people are talking about them whether they like it or not. As a result, they’re deciding whether they should have a social media presence and, hence, a policy. A social media policy outlines for employees the corporate guidelines or principles of communicating in the online world.

Social media is moving quickly from an emerging communication form to the mainstream. So, like in the old days when companies had to figure out how to deal with e-mail, now they have to figure out how to deal with Facebook and all other new media venues.

Let’s talk about the Five Ws to adopting a social media policy.

1. WHY have such a policy?

As a human resources professional, I’m constantly accused of being all about policies. But besides the pre-disposition of my profession to policies, there are legitimate reasons to establish some guidelines for social media. You have to contemplate what might happen if someone says or does something stupid and then posting it on YouTube.

So I asked attorney Eric B. Meyer, an associate in the labor and employment group of Dilworth Paxson LLP, what companies should consider from a legal perspective in developing a social media policy. Meyer made two important points:

A. Employers need to be upfront with employees that they have no right to privacy with respect to social networking. "Employers reserve the right to monitor employee use of social media regardless of location (i.e. at work on a company computer or on personal time with a home computer)."

B. Employees "should be made aware that company policies on anti-harassment, ethics and company loyalty extend to all forms of communication (including social media) both inside and outside the workplace." People need to remember that bashing your organization/boss/co-workers online can lead to consequences at work.

2. WHAT can social media do for my organization?

Shannon Seery Gude, vice president of Digital for Bernard HODES Group, told me that forming a social policy should start with an understanding of how your employees are aligned with your company values. "It’s important," she said, "that authenticity can exist without the need for what may be perceived as forced company morality."

In addition, social media can strengthen your ‘brand’ not only as an employer but as a company. Take Dell Computers. A recent report claims Twitter earned Dell $1 million in revenue over the past year and a half. What are you waiting for?

3. WHO should the policy cover?

Media is for everyone, not just the marketing department. So for it to really be effective, consider expanding the policy to all employees, not just to a handful of people. One way to think of it is, while it’s called social media, it has a vibrant customer service component to it. You wouldn’t take the phone or e-mail from your employees, so why withhold social media?

"Companies have existing communications policies," said Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford Motor Co. "They are directives that spell out the company’s expectation when employees use the phone or e-mail." Since the conversation has moved to the Web, he said, "It’s important for organizations large and small to acknowledge that and extend their existing communications policies to include online sites."

4. WHERE should you let employees know about this policy?

When you give all of your employees the ability to interact with the whole world . . . well, then you have to provide them with some training on how to use it properly and effectively. A great example is Zappos, which encourages all its employees to have Twitter accounts so they can interact with current and potential customers. And they train their employees on the proper use of Twitter during new-hire orientation.

5. WHEN is the right time to implement a policy?

The time to think about drafting a social media policy is now. Twitter is just one of the many social networking applications in the market. Companies are using social media tools to establish value in marketing and branding.

Social media or new media is really media, plain and simple. Many organizations with any kind of formal structure have a policy in place for working with media.

A social media policy is merely an extension of what you currently have in place, along the lines of ones that say you won’t do anything illegal, immoral or unethical.

Monty agrees: "If anything, existing policies should already be in place; amending them to include the changes to communications platforms and anticipating future changes should occur ASAP."

So it’s time for companies to start thinking about social media in the same context as all other forms of communication.

According to Gude, "the case has been made that common sense should be all that is needed. But when done right, formal policies can drive effective practices." That means developing guidelines for its use, training people to leverage the benefits, and proactively creating a positive social media presence for the organization.

The author is president of Internal Talent Management, which specializes in employee training and human resources consulting.