A Good Social Media Policy Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

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“When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”—Mississippi Senator Trent Lott

Lott resigned from the US Senate in 2002, just fifteen days after this immortal on-camera blunder. If he had a Twitter account back then, Mr. Lott might instead have Tweeted, #America would be better off if it had voted for a #racist in the 1940s and opposed #civilrights. #segregationrocks

Right now, there are thousands of Trent Lott’s sharing opinion through Tweeting, blogging, and other social media. And they’re not just politicians, but business executives, middle managers, health professionals, athletes, entrepreneurs and public servants.

When their sentiments get weird, the aftermath looks like this:

A Business Insider executive has made some comments on Twitter that do not reflect our values and have no place at our company. The executive has left the company, effective immediately. Business Insider’s team is composed of more than 100 talented men and women of many backgrounds, and we highly value this diversity.

Henry Blodget, CEO of Business Insider, wrote that contrite clarification on September 10, 2013. He had little choice—he was in damage-control mode. Pax Dickinson, the company’s now-former Chief Technology Officer, used Twitter to make racial slurs, denigrate women, and bash gay rights, according to blogger Anthonia Akitunde on American Express Open Forum.

Many companies encourage employees to use social media to converse online. “We want our management team to engage with our stakeholders. Here are all the passwords to our social media accounts. . .” Before you unlock that gate, think about what you have exposed. Corporate image and reputation, customer loyalty, brand equity. Did I leave anything out? Oh yeah, goodwill. The term no one really understood back in Accounting 101, but it’s probably on your company’s balance sheet. An asset at great risk—though few mention anything about social media’s role.

Still want to give up those passwords? Giving an employee access to your company’s online voice is like giving a first-grader a power saw when you don’t know if she can be trusted with scissors. “Here you go, Sweetie. The plug is right over there on the wall.”

I admit this comparison might seem unfair. After all, executives are adults, and we assume they could not get hired without a baseline cadre of social skills. And there’s pressure on them to speak up. Seventy percent of Fortune 500 CEO’s have no presence on major social media networks, according to a recent report by CEO.com and Domo. “People want CEO’s who are real. They want to know what you think. Can you think of a more cost-effective way of getting to your customers and employees?” said Bill George, a management professor at Harvard Business School.

The answer depends on how you interpret getting to. Dickinson’s misogynistic and racist statements got to customers and employees, but not in the way Mr. George envisioned. “Social media—with its demands for quick, unscripted updates that can quickly go viral—poses risks for top managers and the companies they represent, in the form of lawsuits, leaked trade secrets or angered customers,” according to a Wall Street Journal article, 140 Characters of Risk: Some CEO’s Fear Twitter.

Lawsuits and leaked trade secrets are real risks that give purpose to creating regulations, rules and policies. But in the still-nascent social media world, people resist the idea because it smacks head-on into the freedom of speech, serendipity, and unlimited sharing we cherish.

So recommending that companies formalize social media policies to establish boundaries, controls, and governance might sound like corporate totalitarianism, but it will reduce a multitude of risks. Here’s what to include in a social media policy statement:

1. A definition of company confidential information, and a list of what may not be shared under any circumstance.

2. Legal definitions of defamation, libel, and slander, and examples of related statements your company prohibits in social media.

3. Legal definition of fair use, and what’s prohibited for employees to share.

4. Explanations of what constitutes threatening or harassing comments, along with a clear boundary for what is unacceptable.

5. Establishment of boundaries for posting product claims, offering comments about competitors, providing customer endorsements, and sharing customer references.

6. Company policies for voicing comments about religion, politics, and social issues through corporate social media accounts.

7. A description of how the company monitors its social media conversations.

8. Explanation of the consequences of non-compliance, and how the company intends to enforce them.

Finally, no social media policy is complete without at least a mention of good old Respondeat superior, the legal doctrine stating that a company is responsible for the action of employees within the course of employment. A short translation: an employer could be involved in litigation for anything stupid or insensitive that an employee says online.

Will written social media policies protect your company’s reputation from fallout over employee social-media indiscretions? Not by itself. People say things, and last time I checked, Twitter did not offer a Preview button, not that we don’t desperately need the feature to protect us from ourselves. Maybe after the IPO, the company will develop a clever reality check: “This is inane. Are you still sure you want to say it?”

In the meantime, engage online! Hold conversations! Create killer content! But before all that—hope for the best, plan for the worst, establish unambiguous social media policies, and make sure they’re followed.

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