How to Craft a Sensible Social Media Policy

It’s rare that a day goes by without reading a story about an employee – public or private – who was terminated for something that he or she posted on Facebook, Twitter, et al.

Some of these incidents – especially when they involve a high-profile social issue – can become messy, because a fair percentage of these terminations wind up in court if the terminated employee believes that his/her constitutional rights to free speech have been violated. The result is additional negative PR for the organization that’s done the firing.

These terminations and their contentious aftermaths could often have been avoided if the employee had exercised more common sense, avoided lashing out emotionally to a provocation, or had thought more deeply about how people would perceive a “humorous” post or image that created hurt feelings or worse.

But these individuals’ employers need to bear some responsibility as well. In many cases, they either lacked a social media policy or did not do enough to inform employees about the rules of social media interaction to which they are obliged as a condition of employment.

What goes into a good Social Media Policy?

While every company’s social media policy will be unique, they share common-sense rules that most employees will understand and adhere to. These include:

  1. The rule that if the employee is posting on behalf of the company, company affiliation and real name must be used. Conversely, if the posting is not being made on behalf of the company, a disclaimer indicating this fact must accompany the posting.
  2. “Dishonorable” behavior will not be tolerated. While the term “dishonorable” is broad enough to be subject to many different interpretations, it generally means engaging in racial, ethnic, sexual, religious, or other slurs against a group, or competitor.
  3. Social media posts have long half-lives, so think before you post. As the Social Media policy of Ball State University notes, “Privacy does not exist in the world of social media. Consider what could happen if a post becomes widely known and how that may reflect both on the poster and the university. Search engines can turn up posts years after they are created, and comments can be forwarded or copied. If you wouldn’t say it at a conference or to a member of the media, consider whether you should post it online.”
  4. Copyrights must be respected. While few would argue with this common-sense proposition, many social media users routinely post images whose provenance may be unknown, thus opening up the employer to liability and embarrassment should the copyright owner object. A proper social media policy document should specify safe sources for image acquisition and outline the procedures for acquiring the required license for reproducing the image on social channels.
  5. Trade secrets, proprietary information, and other internal company data should never be divulged on social media (or elsewhere).

The items above aren’t inclusive; they serve only to provide a starting point for the design of a social media policy customized to the particular niche of the company. Some organizations in the public sector have very restrictive policies governing what their employees can and cannot do. Others are comparatively liberal, putting the onus on the employee to exercise “good taste” and “refrain from flame wars.” But there’s no question that having a social media policy will, by helping to “get everyone on the same page” reduce the chance of errors, misunderstandings, and lawsuits.

Learning from what other organizations have done

The good news is that developing a sensible, workable, and fair social media policy isn’t rocket science. For most organizations, the easiest way to come up with one is to borrow whichever provisions make sense from pre-existing policies published by major companies.

An excellent place to start is over on the site, which links to dozens of social media policies maintained by major corporations, government entities, and non-profits. This list is segmented by industry, so it’s easy to find a policy that makes sense for whatever business your firm happens to be in.

Read up on what these policies call for. Use them as templates when designing your own social media policy. Learn from companies who’ve thought long and hard about the issue. You’ll never be 100 percent safe from a high-profile social media meltdown caused by a rogue employee, partner, or other entity doing business with your company. But a social media policy can provide a powerful bulwark against the worst happening, so it’s a mistake not to have one.

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