Why Your Company Does Not Need a Social Media Policy

by Jennifer Vides on September 17, 2010

in Blog Posts,My Soapbox (AKA My Blog)

I’ll just go ahead and start this post with the statement that will shock and awe my colleagues in PR and Social Media: Most organizations DO NOT need a social media policy.

((Ssssshhhh don’t tell that guy I just said that——————>))

No, I’m not crazy. And I’m not stupid. Bear with me, and read this through before you judge me.

During my morning scan of email and Twitter on Tuesday I noticed several University of Miami Hurricanes football players announcing that they were shutting down their Twitter accounts. Player after player bade farewell to his followers. Some expressed dismay that the University had asked them to delete their accounts. And still others seemed legitimately angry. I knew this would be news – and it was. (See stories here from the Miami Herald http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/09/14/1824583/miami-hurricanes-players-ordered.html and ESPN http://sports.espn.go.com/ncf/news/story?id=5572733.

The situation was interesting to me because it represented a high profile organization grappling with the best ways to use social media. So I emailed @ChrisFreet at the University of Miami Athletic Department to ask what was up. The reply, which he had also posted on Twitter, came within minutes:

Football program has asked players to shut down Twitter accounts. Goal is to limit distractions & focus. Bigger goals than TWEETING.”

I had conflicting thoughts:

As a fan of “The U”: Good for Coach Shannon. He’s been working hard to keep the players focused on playing the game well and being good students – and on delivering a winning experience without the issues and distractions that have often plagued good college football programs (including Miami). In order to be a world-class organization on and off the field, the team needs focus and discipline so, in my view, this was a solid decision. I’ll miss the players on Twitter but I fully understand why this is good.

As a marketer: A good social media strategy enables brand representatives, advocates and stakeholders (in this case players) to use social media. Because doing so adds personality to the organization, which is a valuable attribute to the world’s most respected brands. But if the wrong things are said, or if the timing of a post or tweet is questionable, the social media activity can reflect poorly on the organization, in this case the University. I personally had never seen any of the players post anything terrible or inappropriate. So why, I wondered, was this decision made?

But I’d seen some criticism of the team’s quarterback – Jacory Harris – for tweeting two hours before kickoff of the University of Miami / Ohio State University game last Saturday. Miami lost the game because of four turnovers. The critics screamed: “Was Jacory more focused on Twitter than the game?” (My POV as a football fan: ridiculous notion that Twitter could be that much of a distraction. There was a lot more to it, but I digress.)

Given some of the players’ annoyance with the new policy, I also wondered: did the players know when / how they should be using social media? Did the University of Miami Have a social media policy?  I asked Freet. The answer:

The University and Athletics are working on a social media policy currently but it is not enacted at the moment.”

This fact is hardly surprising: most organizations begin using social media before they have a policy in place. Think about it: if you’re a progressive organization, you want to use social media to help drive your business forward. So wouldn’t a social media policy seem to be too restricting? Wouldn’t it make you seem stringent and old school?

I say yes and here’s why. (*Ducks to avoid debris.* *Stands to continue speaking.*)

People view social media as some newfangled technology thing. “Gurus,” “experts” and “specialists” are called in to tell companies how they need to communicate with their customers and stakeholders using social media, and they build mystique around the tools and the process along the way. The truth is: social media is just people doing what they’ve always done: talking, interacting, advocating, complaining, meeting new people with common interests and sharing their lives with each other. And they’re doing it via very user-friendly technology /tools that anyone who knows how to use a computer or a cell phone can use.

Social media is not brain surgery, people.

The difference is that the same conversations that have been had since the beginning of time are now “recorded” for everyone interested (or not) to see or hear. So a conversation I have with a friend on Twitter about my hatred for a particular airline, for example, can be viewed by a zillion people – which is problematic if said airline happens to be my employer or client. (By the way, this has happened before – many a social media “guru” has been caught in this particular web.) And this is why we need special “Social Media Policies” right? So that I won’t stupidly say something untoward about my employer or client on Twitter?

No.

Hey, I’ll happily charge you thousands of dollars to develop a shiny, new Social Media Policy for your company. But I’d rather charge you a lot less money to do the right thing: consult with your HR, Legal and Marketing departments to integrate social media into your current Employee Handbook and Code of Conduct materials. Just like social media should be integrated into a brand’s overall marketing communications strategies (as opposed to being a separate discipline), social media usage guidelines should be integrated into existing employee handbooks. All you really need is for someone who understands the tools to sit with your internal organization for a few hours, or review your current internal materials and integrate social media language and points where necessary. The truth is you’ve already probably addressed many of the core issues in your employee handbook. You just haven’t mentioned social media in all the right places.

Don’t believe me? Let’s review some of the things most “Social Media Gurus” say needs to be addressed in a Social Media Policy:

  • Be careful about/responsible for what you write: (Because your boss might see it and it could get you fired.)How about be careful about/responsible for what you say to your mom, your friend, or in the crowded bar where you may or may not see your boss within earshot?  Would you tell your boss you’re hung over when you come in to work in the morning? No? Then why would you say it on Facebook? *Slaps forehead.* Just include social media tools in that section of your handbook.
  • Exercise good judgment: See my point above. Remember the fast food employees who posted on YouTube videos of themselves doing disgusting things at the restaurant? They got fired (rightfully) because they were doing things that violated their general employment policies, not for violating a social media policy. They were stupid enough to post this stuff on the Internet. Also, tools exist (like Tweetdeck) that allow others to broadcast the “private” comments you make on Facebook, for example, via  Twitter and other social media sites or – even via an email forward. Nothing written or recorded (Tiger? Mel?) is private. Ever. So if you don’t want your grandma or your boss to see it? Don’t write it down. Anywhere. Not even in the sand. That’s what I call good judgment.
  • Respect copyright and use: This is covered in most employee handbooks – the lawyers insist on this.  If it’s not yours? Don’t use it. If you’re not sure? Don’t use it. What to do? Include the copyrights of other organizations and say “even when using social media such as Facebook and Twitter.” And whatever else Legal wants to include.
  • Protect confidential and proprietary information: Again: covered in most employee handbooks. Add in “even when using social media such as Facebook and Twitter.” And, again, whatever else Legal wants to include. It’s confidential. Don’t talk about it anywhere. Period.
  • Productivity: (AKA: don’t sit on Facebook all day because you have work to do.) Most employee handbooks have rules about personal phone calls, texting, etc. Just add the use of social media during work hours in there to your heart’s content. (In the case of University of Miami football team: don’t text, call or use social media on stadium grounds.)

Other recommended social media policy items include “be authentic,” “bring value” and “build community.” These only apply to those people who are asked to use social media as a means to “promote” their organization, and who logically should be trained in advance as to best practices. (But they’re probably gurus so they don’t need the training, anyway. *Zing*) This does not belong in a general employee handbook/policy because…it doesn’t apply to everyone. It’s my business if I choose to be antisocial and un-authentic on my personal Facebook page where I’m not serving as a representative of my company.  I’m probably antisocial with my friends and family in person, too – and it’s my right to be that way. I just won’t have many friends. The game changes with about official company accounts. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

The truth is that it’s to the benefit of most organizations to allow their employees (and stakeholders) to Tweet, Facebook and more. The key is to provide them with some common sense guidelines – and training if it’s a part of their job.  Importantly, they need to be provided with this information from the outset. The reaction of the University of Miami football players to the Twitter shut-down is very similar to what I’ve seen from employees who face similar sudden mandates from their companies – particularly when those companies themselves use social media for marketing purposes. But the reality is that when a company shares guidelines and expectations with its employees up front, most reasonable people will abide by them or have nothing to say when they are caught breaking the rules.

So, yes – I’m a strong advocate of communicating with employees (and stakeholders – as noted in my University example) about rules and guidelines for social media use. But these guidelines don’t need to be a special new policy document. Social media – in all senses – should be integrated into your business practices as just another communications tool. It’s pretty simple. Don’t let a “guru” tell you it isn’t.

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A note to Coach Shannon and the University of Miami: I’m thrilled by your efforts to make the Hurricanes a winning team with good character. I don’t know all of the reasons why you made your decision to ask players to stop tweeting. I enjoyed reading their tweets and was energized by their excitement, so I’m hopeful at some point you can provide them with some guidelines to allow them to tweet again. Meanwhile, your real fans – including me – are behind you and your decisions. Go ‘Canes. #coachshannonforever.

A caveat: I’m neither a lawyer nor an HR professional. So don’t try this at home without those good people. They know what they’re doing. Oh, and I’m also not a “Guru.”

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