Creating Social Media Policy or Shutting Down Engagement?

Recently, the Washington Post issued social media guidelines to its staff and they've caused some controversy, thanks to the long list of "can't do's" that some see as stymying the kind of conversation in which journalists need to be engaged. It's not just media companies that are looking at how to manage the Tower of Babel some feel social media has wrought upon their businesses. Organizations of all kinds seem to be of two minds about the nitty gritty of public engagement, and feel they need to draw the line somewhere. So, we're beginning to see a surge of policy development around how employees can interact online and how organizations engage with the outside world on platforms like Twitter.

Personally, I don't have a problem with this if the resulting policy encourages creative engagement but ensures that the business is protected, that employees use good sense and everyone behaves with mutual respect. A website that's currently circulating is Social Media Governance, which has a database of over 100 social media policies from organizations ranging from municipalities to health care organizations, from the U.S. Navy and Air Force to tech companies to museums. This database is growing and is instructive for organizations considering implementing their own social media policies.

I was surprised to find I liked Wal-Mart's brief and direct approach to Twitter. They recognize that many of their associates may have their own Twitter accounts but identify the official Wal-Mart accounts. The best line is this: "We won’t reply to off topic @replies. Personal attacks and foul language = FAIL. Adding to the discussion = WIN." Do you really need more than that to let people know your philosophy?

But what about internal policies? I like the approach Shift Communications takes with their employees and contractors. Again, it's simple and to the point: Be respectful, be transparent, be diplomatic, have the facts, stick to your area of expertise.  Even the State of Delaware, for all its governmental, bureaucratic jargon and formatting, has it right. They reiterate their ethical stance, the need to be transparent, and, of course, that they must protect confidentiality within the system. They also go one step further and commit to correcting information later found to be in error.

Compare these to Sentara's Social Media Policy. Here's one where the lawyers were clearly let loose. If any spelled-out policy were to have a chilling effect, this would be it. Yes, they're a health-care organization but here we have so much dense legalese, the glazed over eyes have no way to take in anything other than "keep out!" "You must adhere," You are prohibited," "You will not violate..." My favorite? "Sentara/OptimaHealth reserves the right to monitor, prohibit, restrict, block, suspend, terminate, delete, or discontinue your access to any Sentara/OptimaHealth Social Media Site, at any time, without notice and for any reason and in its sole discretion." Clearly, someone doesn't quite get the spirit of social media. And it just gets worse.

So, to those managers who feel compelled to develop a clear social media policy for employees and outside participants on their sites, go forth. Be clear that employees must not compromise protected information, that they must be transparent, respectful, and courteous, and talk only about what they know (having to do with the organization). That they must follow basic stated organizational guidelines already a part of your culture. If you open up a blog or other social media on your site to the public, you should state your position as well. People should respect the rules when they're in your home. But, be judicious and try to avoid a defensive heavy hand. You're trying to encourage engagement and idea sharing, not send people running.

Closing the Communication Gap

There's nothing mind-blowingly brilliant about this, but if you are investing the time and funds to launch and maintain a social media communications platform, I hope you're not forgetting one crucial element. Asking your customers (and if you're a home builder, your potential buyers and brokers) for their social networking contact information.

All of the contact forms you present to potential customers--whether in person at the shop, sales office, or online--should allow them to tell you if they're on Facebook and Twitter, and, if they're on Twitter, what their Twitter account  name is. The forms should also enable customers to confirm that they would be agreeable to your company making these connections with them.

Trust me, even with a list with people's names and email addresses, chances are you will never find them by doing a search on Twitter and, depending on how unusual their names are, you might not be able to identify them on Facebook. Plus, it's just ridiculously time consuming to do that kind of search.

It should go without saying that, in turn, your Twitter and Facebook information (and Linkedin, if appropriate) should be included in every communication you have with customers, from your website, emails, and blog (you do operate a frequently updated blog, don't you?) to any collateral material you've printed, as well as stationery and business cards. If your salespeople have their own business-related social media accounts, those should be part of all of their communications, including email signatures and business cards.

I know this all sounds ridiculously obvious, but it has been endlessly surprising to me to find this pretty big detail not automatically integrated into social media programs. And, if you're making an effort to establish social networking for your business, you should have someone--many someones--to connect with.