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.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Tim says:

    Great post Massimo.

    It raises real questions and points to consider, but at the heart of it, you have your front line employees who want to see a return of the pride and prestige that the RCMP once held and has recently lots some of that.

    I am concerned what opinions and personal comments might be posted and how they are framed. This could inevitably cause more damage, but that would be more of a reflection of the individual, not the organization.

    Common sense is the best guide. If you aren’t willing to proudly state and support your beliefs and convictions naming who you are, then what power is there? Let them identify and let the code of conduct guide them in how they interact and what they say. Empower the brand ambassadors… it could be an amazing thing for the front line to be heard.


  2. Thanks Tim. I agree, it could be amazing for the front line to be heard. I can’t think of one thing that would spell “change-of-culture” more quickly and easily than empowering and encouraging members to share their pride (and gripes) in the organization. It would also mean that these brand ambassadors would be there to respond to unfair online attacks on the force–better them than HQ media flacks

  3. Sasha Taylor says:

    Great Blog Massimo

    Agree with your comments re your best ambassadors are your workforce and you should trust them. You need to provide guidance, ie they are representing their organisation and they need to abide by the code of conduct of that organisation.

    If people are inappropriate the organisation needs to swiftly deal with it, but only if they are inappropriate.

    Why is social media treated as this ‘devil’ channel? Do we impose the same criteria on the workforce in relation to email, telephone and face to face…oh yes code of conduct. So why is it at organisations need something additional to the code of conduct for social media?


  4. Thanks Sasha. I ask the same question. After all, we entrust police officers with the power to make split second life and death decisions with only their training and the principles of the code of conduct as guidance; yet many police organizations refuse to allow their members to engage with their online communities–bizarre.

  5. Tim Smith says:

    Yes, it is a good article Massimo. Law enforcement has made great progress in this area….some have not. Fortunately for me, I am able to respond to unwarranted attacks….using good judgement, respect and a desire to allow the public to see things from another lens.

    We need more doing just that.

  6. Thanks for the kind words Tim. It is precisely because there has been so much progress in this area, with some great stories of police SM engagement (TPS is a good example, not to mention the grounbreaking work of UK police), that the RCMP’s decision seems so wrong headed…

  7. Mike Buda says:

    Just saw this post. Good stuff. Speaks to the inherent challenge of managing large organizations (i.e. “bureaucracies”): risk aversion; process- rather than outcomes-driven; impersonal. The guidelines and principles you discuss in your post could be applied to most areas of corporate governance and HR management in large organizations and result in increased effectiveness, employee morale, etc.

    I like the principles that headline Best Buy’s social media policy document(which itself fits on one page): Be smart. Be respectful. Be human.

  8. You’re exactly right, what we’re seeing from the RCMP is the same attitude that we’re seeing in large public sector organizations (and many private and non for profit ones as well). Social media engagement is no different than any other personal interaction, except in one significant way: it can be frozen in time and broadcast to thousands. That is what scares the heck out of managers. The problem is the corporate paradigm they operate in is all about risk mitigation and containement: a front line employee browbeats a customer, an apology form the manager and all is forgotten. Not so easy if an offensive Tweet goes viral. But the way to deal with this is not by putting straight jackets on staff, but rather by building a culture of customer/client respect and corporate accountability within the organization.

  9. Jean Turner-Floyd says:


    Confession: When I first read your post in August I refrained from responding not because I disagreed with the points you were making about how law enforcement should be engaging in social media (because I whole heartily agree) I refrained from responding because as an RCMP civilian member managing the O Division SM accounts I had no knowledge of “new” SM policy as was being suggested (and ftr still do not) but more importantly I held out hope that the RCMP would continue to move forward in sm in a way that truly embraced it as a tool that all employees could use, as you say, becoming ambassadors for our organization.

    In my opinion, the comments that followed your post are also “bang-on”. The RCMP is a Government of Canada organization AND a police organization; dually bound and doubly sensative, making it an organization where risk aversion is extremely high, process sometimes negates results (especially quick results), and accountibilty from top to bottom often means policy for everyone instead of dealing with individual cases.

    When I read your post and subsequent comments, I am reminded of one of my favourite quotes: “In the hopes of reaching the moon men fail to see the flowers that blossom at their feet” – Albert Schweitzer

    Not all front-line police/employees officers will be “flowers” in sm. But many, many will blossom and flourish in the sm environment bringing unparalleled ROI for the RCMP.

    Trust, accountibilty, and responsiveness not only for the RCMP but for the people we serve being the ultimate result – but like I said many things keep us from being result driven.

    I agree with you Massimo, if the RCMP continues to mute their members not only will they be denying themselves success but will also be setting themselves up for failure from both a Communications perspective and a crisis perspective.

    After having said all that I have a question: How do we convince policy makers before the damage is done?

  10. Thanks so much for your comments Jean. Your question is being asked in organizations, public and private, across the country. Unfortunately, the risk averse, batten down the hatches approach to crisis communications in general and social media more specifically is not unique to the RCMP or government. I’ve seen that same attitude in nonprofits, large and small government organizations and in the private sector as well. I think the common denominator is a fundamental lack of uncerstanding and appreciation of communications coupled with a lack of leadership. The lack of understanding about communications can be addressed through patient education; lack of leadership is a tougher nut to crack!

Leave a Reply