It is the nature of social media that content, good or bad, can be shared and viewed almost instantaneously. This is what makes it such a powerful communications and marketing tool. It is also what makes it potentially very damaging to reputations, brands and bottom lines.

The real time nature of digital communications makes responsive damage control very tricky. Just  ask United Airlines who in 2009 got caught in the  social media turbulence created by a disgruntled passenger and his now iconic video, United Breaks Guitars and was unable to respond effectively.   The airline saw the value of its shares tumble by almost $ 200 million and its reputation take a hit it is only now recovering from.  

But managing external hits to one’s online reputation will be the topic of a future blog, today I want to look at one way organizations can protect themselves from self-inflicted online damage: social media policies.

In theory, it’s simple; most organizations have policies governing just about every aspect of corporate and employee behaviour. From the size of their cubicle, to what they can wear at work, to the type of car they can rent on company business, policies spell out what employees can and cannot do. So, why not policies telling them what they can and cannot do on social media?

In fact,  more and more organizations are adopting precisely those kinds of policies. The problem is that many of them miss the mark.

Effective social media policies should allow the emergence of brand ambassadors within an organization while setting boundaries that facilitate engagement by providing a knowledge safety net for staff and others.

The difficulty in implementing effective social media policies lies in the very essence of social interaction: spontaneity. Throw up a wall around what people can say or do online, and you limit spontaneity and genuine interaction.

This may not be a problem (and in fact may be seen as a good thing) for a company that sees social media as something that should be managed and controlled. But for organizations that recognize the potential of employee and associate online engagement, developing policies that do what they’re supposed to do is a priority.

A few months ago, while developing a social media policy for a client, I stumbled on a great–if somewhat dated– social media policy database that provides examples of the best and the worst policies around.

I found the best policies to be the ones that eschewed highly prescriptive language and focused on four things: trust, clear principles, common sense and simple rules.

Like most corporate policies, rules governing corporate social media use cannot cover every contingency or situation. The best policy is one that rests on clear principles that empower and guide the exercise of discretion by staff and others, while providing clear direction in critical areas. 

Policies that are too stringent will only serve to discourage online interaction or render it stilted and lacking in spontaneity. At the end of the day, how can an organization expect its employees to become effective brand ambassadors if  social media policy is so prescriptive, they feel like they need to consult a lawyer before they tweet?

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