On the importance of having social media guidelines

June 12, 2012

MarketingSherpa survey on social media policiesAccording to a 2011 survey by MarketingSherpa, only 25% of companies said they had a social media policy in place. Perhaps even more telling is the fact that 56% of surveyed respondents did not see the need for one or didn’t intend to implement one shortly.

Yet having a social media policy in place is a good practice, putting safeguards in place to help organizations, employees and stakeholders alike navigate in the ever increasingly evolving sphere of social media.

There are essentially three good reasons to have a social media policy in place.

1. Protect the employee

Many experts claim that we can simply tell employees to use “common sense” when posting things online, whether text content, links to articles, photos and videos. But truth be told, “common sense” is often a loose term, in particular when one arrives into a new corporate culture, not knowing the way things are being done or said around the office. For example, should you friend your colleague, your boss or employees on Facebook? Can you tweet with reference to your employer? If you blog, or comment on blogs, should you let it be known who your employer is?

These are the types of questions usually addressed in a social media policy and in social media training for staff and providers for bigger corporations. And this is not exclusive to employees who tweet or post on behalf of a company: anybody with access to social media ought to be included in a thorough policy. A great example? Check out the US Army social media handbook.

2. Protect the organization

Protecting the employee by providing guidelines helps explaining accepted behaviors, and those that are frowned upon. Intimidation is rarely accepted in the workplace, so it shouldn’t be accepted either in social media between employees or with external parties. Detailing these aspects thus helps organizations take necessary action when necessary, ensuring a healthy workplace and due diligence from a human resources point of view. A good example is how the State of Victoria, in Australia, has developed a simple and effective set of guidelines, as can be seen in this video:

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Having a good social media policy in place also helps determine who is entitled to speak on behalf of the company, who manages social media accounts, and what kind of confidential information about the company can or cannot be shared online.

It can take 20 years to build a brand, but only 5 minutes to ruin it – Warren Buffett

Caution: there is a fine line between guidelines and control. Some companies try to exert tight control over employees in the social media sphere, with controversial results. It was the case recently with GM, Target and DISH Networks that were deemed illegal by labor officials. Another example is the Organizing Committee for the 2012 Olympic Games that has developed a very stringent social media policy for athletes, sponsors, media and participants in the upcoming event.  We can all understand the need to protect the exclusive sponsorships with the big money involved, but stringent control over photos, videos and texts during the two-week event appears simply impossible.

3- Clarify organizational structure

By defining who is responsible for social media interactions on behalf of the organization, management gets a golden opportunity to define which department should be held accountable for its strategy and execution. Most companies start out with a centralized approach, where social media resides either under Marketing, Public Relations, IT, Customer Service or any other given department. But with experience comes a more decentralized approach, coordinated through multifunctional teams, accountable under a specific department or the CEO directly, depending on size of companies.

Approche multifonctionnelle: Gestion des médias sociaux
Multifunctional approach to social media management (Altimeter Group)

We also find a more evolved organizational model, where every employee is a brand ambassador with access to social media as part of the job definition, or encouraged by senior management. The best example can be found at Zappos. Read here for the Brian Solis post on this story

No matter which organizational model is in place for your social media management, guidelines should clearly define what is expected from employees in this sphere. If a customer service employee is now expected to spend one hour a day to monitor and respond on Twitter on behalf of the company, proper training should follow, as with job descriptions reviews. This employee should then be able to tread the social media environment, whether it’s responding for official purposes via a corporate account or later on during personal time, responding on blog posts via a personal account. In today’s world, where transparency and authenticity are key, having a strong social media policy in place to help all parties evolve is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Read also:

Social Media policies at GM, Target, DISH Networks deemed unlawful by labor official

Framework and Matrix: The Five Ways Companies Organize for Social Business

Frederic Gonzalo
Frederic Gonzalo

Senior marketing and communications expert & speaker with 18 years expertise in the travel and hospitality industry. Consulting since early 2012, I provide strategic planning, social media & mobile development counseling to small and medium businesses alike. Reach me at frederic@gonzomarketing.biz

Brian Peake
Brian Peake

Awesome article. For any business to grow in today’s Internet Marketing world, you can’t ignore the importance of Social Media Marketing. Millions of users are on different social media like Facebook, Google Plus, Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumbler and so on. So to attract the target and potential customers from these channels is a very challenging task. The most important rule to get the potential customers is to engage them. You are absolutely right that social media guideline has to be defined in an organization so that execution can be there to promote the product or brand. You can also check one more article that I read http://www.webstarttoday.com/blog/2012/06/13/small-business-marketing-social-media-is-essential-now/. Thanks for sharing this post. Brian Peake

Frederic Gonzalo
Frederic Gonzalo

Thanks for the feedback and article reference, Brian. Indeed, ignoring social media marketing is no longer an option for most organizations, yet it's fascinating to realize how very few have proper guidelines in place. Let's hope this changes and evolves, as we all require policies and guidelines to help navigate this ever-changing online world. Cheers, Frederic