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April 27th, 2009 | 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 consider having 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 quickly moving from an emerging form of communication to the mainstream. So, just like in the old days when companies had to figure out how to deal with email, 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.
Unfortunately, you have to contemplate what might happen if someone says or does something stupid (like employees doing gross things to food and posting it on YouTube). So I asked one of my attorney tweeps, Eric B. Meyer, who’s 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 reminded me of two important points:
2. WHAT can social media do for my organization?
Shannon Seery Gude, VP 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 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 for example. A recent report claims that Twitter has made Dell $1 million in revenue over the past year and a half. So what are you waiting for?
3. WHO should the policy cover?
Media is for everyone…not just your marketing department. So for it to really be effective consider expanding the policy to all employees, not just for 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 email from your employees, so why take social media away from them.
“Companies have existing communications policies,” explains Scott Monty, head of social media at Ford Motor Company, “directives that spell out the company’s expectation when employees use the phone or email.” Since the conversation has moved to the Web, “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. They encourage all of their employees to have Twitter () accounts so they can interact with current and potential customers. And, they actually train their employees on the proper use of Twitter during new-hire orientation.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says that their company uses Twitter in a big way. “We’ve found that it’s a great way to form more personal connections with both employees and customers.”
5. WHEN is the right time to implement a policy?
The time to think about drafting a social media policy is now. Twitter is growing at a rate of 1,382%, and it’s just one of the many social networking applications in the market. Companies are using social media tools to establish value in terms of 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. You know, the policy that says any requests from the media need to be directed to the Corporate Director of XYZ for response. Add to that, the communication policies you have in place. The ones that say you won’t do anything illegal, immoral, unethical, etc. So this is really no different. Social media is merely an extension of what you currently have in place.
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.