Social Media – Really Worth the Risk?

Came across this paragraph this morning. I’m not going to go into the context – suffice it to say it was the conclusion of a commentary on Barack Obama’s ‘off-the-record’ comment that Kanye West is a ‘jackass’. (Which he is, but that’s another song, as they say.)

 Anyway – it’s not new – it’s what every comms practitioner knows, simply updated for the social media age in which we live.

 “In today’s wired world, every bystander with a camera phone, a blog or a Twitter account can play reporter and turn an off-hand comment into a worldwide news story. For almost any setting, the best policy today is not to say, write or do anything that you don’t want to see in the newspaper tomorrow, on the TV news tonight or on Twitter or YouTube in the next two minutes.”

 So – given that we take this truth to be self-evident – how does this square with official employee use of social media? Already this week I’ve come across – and published – the quite extraordinary assertion that “….since this type of communication is often viewed as less formal than other (sic), there is increased risk for inadvertent disclosure”. And we know, from some very high-profile examples, that – above and beyond inadvertent screw-ups – there are also employees who come over all Tourette’s when confronted by Twitter or YouTube.

 As I’ve said already, I’ve changed my mind. Doing nothing and hoping it will go away is not an option. Every organisation, by now, should either have, or be giving thought to, a social media policy. Preferably one that doesn’t entertain the notion of allowing employees free rein to post to social media either during company time, from company machinery or on behalf of the body corporate. The sanctions against anyone doing it should be quite draconian.

 I was, frankly, open-mouthed when I found out that WholeFoods has over 1,370,000 followers on Twitter. It is extraordinary. I was reasonably shaken when I saw Starbucks had nearly 294,000. Even allowing for the large proportion who became followers on their first visit to Twitter and have never visited again, that still a lot of potential dialogue and a lot of room for error.

 I know that Ford and Coke have created social media ambassadors – carefully trained, briefed and monitored social media spokespeople – to deal with their respective 15,000 and 8,500 followers. I’m presuming that WholeFoods and Starbucks has done the same.

 Best Buy, with its Twelpforce, hasn’t and the experiment is not considered, universally, a success. They’ve had some Tourette’s incidents with some of their employee Tweeters.

 The point is, I guess, that I’m not convinced of the value-add of social media. If it didn’t exist, would anyone actually bother to invent it? What I am convinced of is the increasing amount of time, effort and budget that is going to have to be invested in it – and its ancillary activities like training and monitoring – if those companies who have so bravely (and so very quickly) embraced the technology are going to keep on top of it.

 I am also convinced that the rise of social media has introduced a new, and very elevated, level of risk into external and internal corporate communications that we, the gatekeepers, ignore at our peril. As social media cannot be (properly) monitored and isn’t regulated, so it is difficult to create a plan for its use or target the message.

 Every organisation should, by now, either have, or be working on, a social media policy. And it should aim to restrict corporate usage. Before the trouble starts.

Social Media – Creating a Use of Social Media Policy

Now, bear in mind that, on balance, I do not think this is a good idea. If a company has a Use of Social Media policy, it should contain no more than half a dozen sentences. Possibly less. Those sentences should contain the words ‘Don’t’ and ‘Ever’ and ‘Disciplinary Action’. It is, in my opinion, far too difficult and far too time intensive to try to let employees embrace social media on the company’s behalf. The potential risk to your hard-won corporate reputation far outweighs any potential benefit.

 (And before anyone starts – I fully understand that a) people use social media on their own account, in their own time, and probably, during office hours and b) a company’s employees do talk about the company to friends, family, colleagues and the man in the pub on a regular basis, and it’s not always positive. And, as I understand this, I expect my readers to understand the inherent difference between commenting to friends and family, and publishing those same comments on a freely-accessible, global social media portal.)

 But, because I’m a good cyber-citizen, what follows is the best template for a corporate social media policy that I’ve come across. The italics are theirs, the rest is my commentary. Enjoy. Prosper.

 1. Overall Philosophy. An effective social media policy should define the company’s overall philosophy on social media and be consistent with its culture. For example, does the company have a supportive, open philosophy on the use of social media or a stronger, more limited embrace of this technology?

This takes as read, of course, that the company has actually bothered to give social media some modicum of thought. My guess is that most haven’t, so you’ll have to do some work on your company’s  social media philosophy, before you can start on your policy. And I am just loving the ‘for example’ – in translation ‘is the company enlightened and open, or dark, twisted, malevolent and medieval?’ Your choice.

 2 Honesty and Respect. One of the most important aspects of a policy is a requirement that employees be open, honest, respectful and transparent in their usage of social media – especially in the business context.

Can’t disagree with this. Do however think it is a bit Utopian and that it might throw up internal communications issues, particularly amongst those employees who may feel that, in asking them to be open and honest etc etc, you’re actively suggesting that they aren’t currently. But I’m sure you can handle that.

 3 Confidential and Proprietary Information. Disclosure of confidential or proprietary information through social media can be prevalent. Especially since this type of communication is often viewed as less formal than other, there is increased risk for inadvertent disclosure. Guidelines should reinforce the company’s confidentiality and proprietary information policies and apply such to the social media environment.

Scary shit. This is where you might want to start using words like ‘draconian’, ‘disciplinary’ and ‘action’. The idea of ‘inadvertent disclosure’ gives me the shrieking ab-dabs.

(Edited to add) Oh, and if there’s any risk of ‘inadvertent disclosure’ – and there is, there is – then you’ll want to brush up your crisis management plans, and give them a thorough testing. And, as the one instance that I can think of when social media really comes to the fore is in a crisis scenario, you’ll need a section about social media policy in your crisis management document. Good thing you’re working on a social media policy, eh?

 4 Online Identity. When engaging in online social networking, it is important to differentiate an employee’s personal identity from his or her business identity. While regulating employees’ usage of their personal identity may be outside of the scope of a company social media policy, defining such is fair game. For example, is it acceptable to have an employee’s business name and title be connected to a personal blog post which is critical of a certain political party? Is it acceptable for employees to post their work e-mail addresses on blogs discussing controversial topics? An effective policy must address such issues and define acceptable limits.

Again – I agree with the sentiments of this, but I can see all sorts of issues involved with identifying the myriad of potential situations and providing guidelines for each one. You’re going to be working on this for some time, I can see that. Or you could just say – ‘no way, we’ve got authorised, trained and monitored spokespeople for social media and it’s not a free-for-all, so don’t do it’.

 5 Focus on Job Performance. There is a lot of discussion on whether social media hurts worker productivity. For example, is it acceptable for an employee to post on a personal blog during their lunch break? Or, can an employee tweet on business-related topics during the work day? Remember, the new work force does not live in an eight-to-five world. The focus should be on job performance instead of “company time.”

‘Remember, the new workforce doesn’t live in an eight to five world’ – no, because it’s now expected to be on call 24/7. I blame Blackberries and workahol and companies insidiously creating cultures where it simply isn’t acceptable not to be available at any time. And I also blame the workers who are so tired of their own lives that they perpetuate it. ‘Company time’? Any time, more like.

 6 Avoid Conflicts of Interest. Conflicts of interest come in many forms – especially when engaging in social media. The policy should discuss how to identify potential conflicts of interest, what types of conflicts are prohibited and who to talk to when in doubt.

This one scares the living bejaysus out of me as well. Conflicts of interest? I humbly suggest that if it’s going to put your employees in the way of having to make judgement calls on conflicts of interest and when to refer them, then you’re better off not doing it. But – hey – if you’ve THAT much time on your hands – go ahead.

 7 Include a Disclaimer. Employees should make it clear that their views about work-related matters do not represent the views of their employer or any other person. The policy should require a disclaimer, such as the following, when there is the possibility for confusion between business and personal identity: “The views expressed on this blog are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer or any other person.”

But – surely – if you’re wanting your employees to comment on the company, on behalf of the company, then a disclaimer doesn’t really make sense? And if they’re not commenting about the company on behalf of the company – why – in the name of all that’s holy – are you allowing them to do it?

 8 Monitoring. The policy should state whether – and to what extent – the company has the right to monitor social media usage and identify any associated disciplinary guidelines.

Yes, the company has the right to monitor social media usage, to the very ends of the internet – if it is accessed through a company machine or device. (Mind you, the monitoring’s going to cost a bit, both in terms of budget and resource – but you knew that and were prepared for it. Weren’t you?) Here is another opportunity to use the words ‘draconian’ and ‘punishment’.

 9 Universal Application. A social media policy should apply to everyone, not just a subset of employees (i.e., the marketing department).

Absolutely. No further comment.

 10 Other Policies. Other company policies, such as those on workplace environment, discrimination, harassment, ethics, code of conduct and others apply even in the cyber-land of social media. An effective policy should remind internal audiences of these obligations and relate them to social media

Go on. You have a go at relating them to social media. Good luck.

 So there you are. Never say I don’t give you anything. If you’d like to see the whole document that I lifted this from, then perform some dexterous clickaciousness here.

 There’s a bit about training – which you’re going to have to do once your policy’s in place. You’re going to love it.