Defining your social media policy

Social media is becoming an increasingly important part of our professional and personal lives.

Nearly three-quarters of internet users visit social networking sites, according to the latest statistics from the Pew Research Center, while businesses are using these channels to boost their marketing efforts and develop relationships with customers.

The chances are your employees are active users of social media, and this should be seen as a good thing - it means they can immerse themselves within their industry and put your company in a better position to serve the interests of your clients.

But companies need to exercise caution to make sure they are not left red-faced by the actions of their employees.

Why do you need a social media policy?

A social media policy educates employees and gives them some clear ground rules about what they can and cannot do and say. For example, no company wants to have a dubious opinion mistakenly tied to them because of something an employee has said on a personal Twitter account. As a worst case scenario, you could end up facing legal action, especially if there is a privacy agreement in place with a client.

While the vast majority of policies will be common sense or best practice tips, it's important that members of staff who are representing their company on any social media platforms understand what is expected of them.

The main issue is one of naivety - too many employees only think about their friends and family when posting on Twitter or Facebook, when these statuses can actually have global reach. The last thing you want to do is get your employer into hot water over a misguided post.

Employees have to understand the importance of behaving in a professional manner on these channels, while they should never mix their personal and business lives.

What should a social media policy include?

Every company will have to draw up a policy that suits their own industry and business model, but there are some issues that will always arise.

  • If you mention your employer on social media, you need to state explicitly that your opinions are your own
  • Make sure all confidential information and privacy agreements are respected
  • Do not misrepresent your position in the company
  • Do not share internal communications
  • All statements made must be true and you need to be able to substantiate claims
  • If you do get into a debate online, respond in a polite and graceful manner

How can you create a social media policy?

A poorly-written social media policy can be just as damaging as not having one at all, so companies need to employ the right strategy for drafting this document. Central to making any policy effective is enshrining trust in the process, as employees do not want to feel like they are being controlled.

The easiest way to make this happen is to adopt a team approach, as this makes sure that the key areas of risk are managed properly. Get the marketing manager, HR director, some digital experts and the CEO if possible together to spend time curating the policy. The main focus should be on creating a document that reflects the company culture, so make sure everything is transparent and consistent.

Adidas: An example of a social media policy

Adidas is a big user of social media. Its main Twitter profile has 2.29 million followers, while it uses a series of tie-ins with celebrities and sports stars to boost its branding efforts throughout the world.

Despite this, its social media policy runs to only two pages, as it recognises how important it is not to overload people with information. Among the highlights are:

  • Do not comment on work-related legal matters unless you are an official spokesperson, and have the legal approval by the Adidas Group or its brands to do so.
  • Respect your audience. Don't use ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, or engage in any conduct that would not be acceptable in the Adidas Group's workplace.
  • Think about consequences. Imagine you are sitting in a sales meeting and your client brings out a printout of a colleague's post that states that the product you were about to sell "completely sucks".
  • Don't cite or reference clients, partners or suppliers without their approval. When you do make a reference, where possible, link back to the source.
  • Even if you act with the best intentions, you must remember that anything you put out there about the Adidas Group can potentially harm the company.

While this approach is quite strict in terms of content, it does encourage people to be active users. It also demonstrates how important it is to tie everything back to the company and the potential for social media use to help or hinder its goals.

Social media is a great tool for businesses, but just as with any marketing platform, it has to be used effectively to maximise the opportunities on offer.