A news story out of Vancouver, says the RCMP  warned its employees against identifying themselves as members of the force when posting personal comments on social media sites.

If the story is correct and the force’s warning goes beyond a reminder of members’ code of conduct obligations, then the RCMP, an organization with over 28,000 employees, is depriving itself of as many potential and powerful online ambassadors.  With the RCMP brand tarnished by news reports of bad behaviour, the organization’s focus should be on sharing its stories to put a human face on the red serge, not stifling social interaction.

But the RCMP is not alone in its digital skittishness as fear of social media seems to have replaced fear of reporters in many organizations.

In some ways, this is understandable. 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. And it is what spooks many organizations, public and private.

There is no doubt that 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 The airline saw the value of its shares tumble by almost $ 200 million and its reputation take a hit it is still struggling to recover from.

That is why many organizations batten down the hatches when it comes to social media engagement.   Their fear of the digital faux pas, forces them to adopt stringent social media policies and practices that limit direct engagement and impose top down message control. And so doing they deprive themselves of their best tool for countering negative stories and bad PR: their community.

One of the reasons (and there are several) United failed to contain the online firestorm was that it was unable to mobilize the thousands-strong army of Twitter followers and YouTube susbscribers–all potential brand ambassadors–to share, amplify and most importantly, validate its message.

Where were United’s brand ambassadors in its time of need?  They were on the sidelines watching the airline they trust to move them safely, efficiently and economically, being grounded by a story and catchy tune gone viral.

In United’s case, it was less a matter of existing social media policies hindering their ability to mobilize potential support and more a lack of community building and engagement coupled with poor tactical execution.

But for many organizations, the very policies they develop to mitigate and manage risk,  hamstring their ability to respond effectively to online communication crises and attacks on their brand.

In theory, social media policies are easy to develop. 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. And in fact,  more and more organizations are adopting precisely those kinds of policies to govern social media interaction. The problem is that many of them miss the mark, like the RCMP’s new policy appears to do.

Effective social media policies should allow the emergence of brand ambassadors within and outside an organization by providing clear, common-sense principles that facilitate engagement.

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, or when they can say it,  and you limit spontaneity and genuine interaction.

This may not be a problem for organizations that see social media as something that should be managed and controlled. But for organizations that recognize the potential of employee and community online engagement, developing policies that do what they’re supposed to do should be a priority.

A few months ago, while developing a social media policy for a client, I came across a great social media policy database that provides examples of the best and the worst policies around.

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

In the case of the RCMP, and most police organizations, the code of conduct should form the base of the policy framework. This is what governs police officers’ behaviour in and out of uniform, it governs how they should interact with the citizens they are sworn to serve and protect, and it is what should govern their social media interactions. This basic framework would need to be augmented by proper social media training along with socialization of the critical role that sworn and civilian members can play in supporting the organization’s standing in the community through their online engagement.

Like most corporate policies, rules governing corporate social media use cannot cover every contingency or situation. Policies that are too stringent will only serve to discourage online interaction or render it stilted and lacking in spontaneity.

Social media engagement is like casting a pebble in a pond: Networks grow in concentric circles. Policies that force officers to shed their uniforms before engaging with their friends, family and peers, fail to tap in the networks and communities closest to the organization.

The best police social media policy is one based on clear principles that empower and guide the exercise of discretion. Policies that impose limits above those contained in members’ code of conduct risk seeing the organization forced to fend off PR challenges through corporate spin and traditional media, while absent from the channels where the conversations are taking place.

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