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Four Reasons You Need a Formal Social Media Policy

Whether your company is dipping its proverbial toes in the social media waters or is already deeply entrenched in social networking, it’s time to think about developing a documented social media policy. That’s because employees – whether acting as an official spokesperson or on their own behalf – are most likely participating on social channels such as Facebook (which boasts more than 300 million users), LinkedIn and Twitter and they need guidance on how to effectively communicate company messages and what they should and should not do.   Here’s why you need a social media policy:

Online collaboration is changing the way we work. Social media has migrated from an outlet for personal expression to a must for business communication. As such, organizations need to decide if providing employee access to the social channels is a help or a hindrance, and then set guidelines for use to ensure employee communication reflects corporate values and mission.

A Web participation policy should encompass expectations for contributing to blogs, forums, mailing lists, wikis, photo and video sharing sites and social networking sites to ensure employees understand where they are allowed to share information and any parameters or limitations. Plan for the policy to evolve as participation in social media evolves. It should encompass basic operating procedures such as not sharing confidential information, requirements for transparency statements (i.e. ‘the thoughts expressed are those of the individual posting and not of the company’), what types of information can be shared and whether employees can visit such sites during business hours.

The mainstream press is no longer the only conduit through which to disseminate news. Even as little as five years ago, mainstream media was still the primary communication vehicle for organizations to promote their products, services, achievements and thought leadership. Today, the Web has come alive with much of the editorial being created by independent writers either on industry-specific or company blogs. At the recent HR Technology Conference & Exposition, dozens of bloggers ranging from analysts to vendors to well-known industry luminaries covered the event. Organizations now have the opportunity to support program sponsorships and show exhibitions by using Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook fan pages to drive attendance and communicate happenings from the show floor.

If you’re planning to Web-enable your company’s presence at a live event, be sure to consider the audience and provide employees with messages that are on target and add value. Having a defined communication strategy and developed message points – just as you would for use with any media, traditional or otherwise – can ensure brand consistency in both tone and substance and empower employees to effectively deliver marketing messages. A social media policy should provide company representatives with the freedom and flexibility to personalize these messages while staying aligned with overall communication goals. A social media policy should also stress the importance of acting responsibly as individuals participate on behalf of their organization in the various channels online.

Every employee is empowered as a spokesperson. According to a study conducted by Nucleus Research, an IT research firm, 54 percent of companies block employees from sites such as Facebook and Twitter, citing productivity concerns, while others allow limited or full access noting the business benefits that are derived from enabling employee online participation. However, after business hours, employees are likely updating their live feed or tweeting about their day and need to understand what’s outside the corporate sharing guidelines. Whether it’s sanctioned by the organization or not, social media empowers every employee to act as company spokesperson.

As a result, employers need to not only have a policy in place that establishes boundaries, but they also need to monitor social networks to understand what is being said about them to gain valuable business intelligence. Social platforms can help build or strengthen a company’s employment brand, make connections with prospects or suspects and support sales and marketing initiatives. Without a policy in place employees can intentionally or unintentionally destroy any goodwill that is being established. For example, some employees may bad mouth their workplace through sites such as jobvent.com or telonu.com. Or, negative comments left by an individual on a blog or social channel may reflect poorly on the organization. What happens online stays online and when a potential partner, blogger or analyst “Googles” a name or company or searches a Twitter stream, what they find in the search results can alter their opinion and create communication challenges.

A single tweet can topple your business. According to research from Jim Jansen, an associate professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State, analysis of 150,000 microblog postings revealed that 19 percent of tweets contain a mention of a brand. Of these, 33 percent were critical of the company or product. While most organizations put preparations in place to prepare for counteracting defamatory statements, it’s the innocuous ones that could have a more far-reaching impact. With traditional media, corporate communications teams could focus on training and educating only the official company spokespeople. With online social media, it’s important that every individual understand the implications of what they write as it pertains to their workplace.

Consider the hourly worker at a big box retailer who can maintain communications during the workday via his iPhone. While he may have a small network of friends that care when he tweets he’s “bored – the store is dead,” an analyst or investor may stumble upon that same post either through their extended network or via search. Suddenly, it’s no longer about a bored employee but a store with low customer traffic, potential decline of brand share or failure to deliver value to shareholders.

By establishing a social media policy, organizations can create positive interactions, control consistency of message and ensure employees understand how they can support the company’s mission, values and goals. To learn more about how The Devon Group can build or support your organization’s social media strategy, contact me.