Business Tools

12 Tips for Smart Social Media Policy

SEMA News—June 2011

12 Tips for Smart Policy

By Joe Dysart

Marketers flocking to Facebook and Twitter without even a hint of a social media policy are discovering a disturbing truth: It takes only a few ill-placed tweets and posts to get your feathers plucked.

Insurance goliath Aflac learned this lesson the hard way earlier this year when the voice of its wildly famous mascot duck, Gilbert Gottfried, tweeted what was considered an off-color joke about Japan’s recent earthquake. In just a few hours, Gottfried’s joke had offended a significant percentage of the nation of Japan—a place where Aflac happens to do 75% of its business.

“Gilbert’s recent comments about the crisis in Japan were lacking in humor and certainly do not represent the thoughts and feelings of anyone at Aflac,” said Michael Zuna, a senior vice president at the company.

Aflac fired Gottfried on the spot and jump-started a contest to find a new voice for its fowl. But the damage was done. For many Japanese, thoughts of the Aflac duck will always turn to hunting season.

Fortunately, with a little forethought—and a social media policy—your company need not face the same fate. Here are some of the key elements you should have in place, based on insights from top experts in the medium.

Spare the Sledgehammer: While it’s critical to have a social media policy, be sure that it reads like a friendly guide, not a stern warning. Essentially, don’t “write a huge document that strangles any hint of spontaneity from your team,” said Janet Fouts, author of Social Media Success!. “Quite the opposite. A corporate policy lets them know what they need to know to communicate the company message effectively and what they should and should not do.”

Let It Go: Once you agree to play in the social media space, realize that you’re simultaneously agreeing to lose at least some control over your company’s image. Given all the interactivity in the space and the tens of thousands of cacophonous voices, it’s inevitable. Accept what is, social media experts say, and instead focus on the medium’s benefits.

Lose the Filter: If you plan to run every post for Twitter or Facebook past your attorneys first, save yourself the trouble and don’t do social media at all. “Social media doesn’t work like this,” Fouts said. “If your statements appear to be canned or professionally produced, they’re bound to fall flat. Let the team know the facts when a new product comes out or you reach a noteworthy milestone. Then let them put it into their own words.”

Build a Better Wheel: Lucky for you, scores of top companies and corporations have already agonized over the drafting and creation of social media policies. Get a gander at more than 160 of those policies at the Social Media Governance website.

Define the Rose: Like many things, social media is in the eye of the beholder. Some think of it as just Facebook and Twitter. Others include what’s posted on blogs, internal wikis or even what’s on the company’s customer service Q&A database. “You need to spell that out so that everyone is operating under the same definition,” said Lisa Barone, co-founder of Outspoken Media. “Once that’s squared away, provide an explanation of what social media means to your company. Why are you investing resources in participating? What do you hope to get out of it, and how are these tools helping you? That company mantra or philosophy will be invaluable in quickly leading employees out of murky water.”

Dress for Success: Before your first tweet, also decide if staff should post using only online personas that clearly identify themselves with the firm—such as @TINAwidgetcompany—or if they can use their after-work personas as well. The danger of being too free and easy is that a fired or disgruntled employee can do great damage to a firm using an online persona not owned by the company but used in the past to represent the company.

Distinguish Between Personal and Corporate Views: In the casual world of social media, staff can be tempted to mix personal views with official company dogma. Guard against this, the experts said. You don’t want to turn on the morning news to find that a key employee has, under your company’s banner, dismissed the moon landing as just another conspiracy hoax.

Schedule a Date for Human Resources and Legal: While social media offers human resources (HR) a new treasure trove for background checks, there are many social media activities HR should simply avoid—including reading opinions on politics and religion on Facebook and the like—when making hiring decisions. Here, guidance from attorneys really could save your firm untold headaches.

Don’t Forget About That Other Job: If Facebook and Twitter are considered work, some employees may conclude that staying glued to both all day is perfectly reasonable. Instruct otherwise. “As great of a tool as social media is, it can also become a colossal time waster,” Barone said. “Let it be known that the company will be monitoring employee social media use—and actually do monitor it—and that abuse will be handled appropriately.”

Post Signs for “No Man’s Land”: Even the best-intentioned staffer can destroy a company with a single post that should have remained confidential. Be proactive, Barone said, and make sure that they know what they can say, what they can’t and what you’d absolutely hang them from their toes for if they ever muttered it.

Don’t Poke the Crazy: Inevitably, staffers are going to come across that odd character who will do everything in his/her power to provoke a flame war—a seemingly unending game of tit-for-tat that will leave your firm looking amateurish, at best. Barone said that employees need to know where the line is and how exactly they should react when someone they’ve never met and whom they were only trying to help turns around to call them a moron.

Offer a Clue: Once you’ve established a social media policy, hold a meeting to go over the major points, if necessary. You should also announce the new policy via a company-wide e-mail, and be sure to tuck a copy of the guide into each employee’s HR folder.

Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan, New York.
Contact: 631/256-6602; or