There seems to be a general consensus that companies need to have social media guidelines. The various guidelines share some common features, but also differ in many ways. In this post, I will examine the purpose of creating social media guidelines and try to identify key features that make social media guidelines engaging instead of just constraining.
Note on terminology: The terms social media guidelines and social media policy are often used interchangeably. You can read more about various views on the meanings of these terms presented by Leslie White and Vivienne Storey. I prefer to use the word guidelines, because I feel that it has a more positive connotation and as such it is more suitable for creating engagement. Furthermore, many companies have existing policies on a more general level than just social media, which already cover the policy aspect, so guidelines are more fitting in this respect as well.
Why would a company need social media guidelines?
The main argument in favor of drafting social media guidelines is that they protect the company from mishaps in social media. A well-balanced representation of this view that argues for brevity and limiting the number of rules has been written by Tamara Schweitzer.
Unfortunately, this basic approach has also lead to many rule-filled social media policies that read like a law book. This approach has been questioned, for example in this thoughtful post by Ben Stroup, in which he advocates social media policies that empower individuals.
However, despite the general consensus in favor of social media guidelines, there are, fortunately, still some dissenting voices that question the necessity of the whole thing.
The main arguments against social media policies are the following:
- The company’s existing policies cover social media already.
- Social media policies discourage employees from using social media.
- Your employees are trustworthy, no policy is needed.
- Social media policies increase bureaucracy.
I definitely agree with the first argument. The existing policies of many companies cover social media already. Things like non-disclosure are already covered by other policies, so there is no particular need to say that disclosing trade secrets on social media is bad too.
The second argument is warranted as well, as social media policies often do discourage employees from using social media. Many social media policies are filled with rules, regulations, and negative consequences should you happen to err. Discouraging indeed!
However, with the possible exception of some technology or marketing companies, employees are not universally jumping on the social media bandwagon and ready to use it for business as well as for personal use. Instead of discouraging social media use, social media guidelines can be used to encourage it.
The third argument, that employees are trustworthy, and therefore no policy is needed, is a bit more problematic. Even though employees are, in general, trustworthy, it does not mean that policies and guidelines are useless. Social media guidelines can be used to educate personnel on social media.
The fourth argument, that social media policies increase bureaucracy, is definitely valid when taking a look at the various social media policies available on the internet, which sometimes require official permits for participation and further permits for conversation. However, this is again dependent on the contents of the social media policy. Instead of increasing bureaucracy, social media guidelines can be used to empower the employees.
The three E’s that form the foundations of engaging social media guidelines
By examining the arguments against social media guidelines, we have now identified three potential uses for them. I will now examine each of them to determine their worth.
E1. Encourage your employees to use social media
There are at least three groups of people who could use some encouragement to use social media professionally.
Encourage the people who do not use social media regularly. With the use of social media on steep rise, this group is getting smaller, but it is still significant, especially among older employees. Show them the benefits, show them how social media can make a difference.
Encourage the people who already use social media for personal use. Most younger employees and an increasing number of older employees are already on social media. However, even for digital natives, it is not obvious that heavy personal use also automatically means heavy professional use. In fact, many have likely not seen the value of professional networking. Show them that it can be a professional media too.
Encourage the people who are unsure where your company stands on social media. Even the most savvy professional social media users can use a little encouragement. Unless they know where the company stands on social media, they cannot fully utilize it.
Well, the above-mentioned three groups cover pretty much everyone.
This means that you will always need to encourage your employees to use social media. Even when all employees are digital natives, if social media as we know it now even exists when most companies are at this point, the need to encourage them to take full professional advantage of social media is as relevant as it is now.
E2. Educate your employees to use social media
In a similar vein to the previous E, even if your employees use social media for personal use all the time, it does not mean that they understand how to use it professionally.
The two things that cannot be repeated too often are that everything you put on the internet is (1) permanent and (2) viewable by anyone. I have written earlier about how much to share online, and this general framework can be applied to professional use as well as private use.
Education is not all prohibitions though. Most social media policies offer advice on best practices, such as use your real name, disclose your affiliations, and admit and correct your mistakes.
Depending on the needs of your company, you can dig even deeper on how to handle specific situations or specific networks.
E3. Empower your employees to use social media
Once you have encouraged your employees and made them enthusiastic about using social media, and educated them on how to use it, it is time to let them loose.
Create guidelines that allow your employees to be themselves, be real, have genuine conversations, learn from others, and help others.
One important part of empowering your employees is that you should publish your social media guidelines on the internet. This way your employees have access to them from anywhere in case of uncertainty.
Furthermore, you should also publish related material such as public customer references in an easily searchable form. This is especially relevant in many B2B environments, in which much of the work is confidential. When public information is easy to check, any employee can quickly check if he is allowed to write about a specific solution in social media.
In order to be empowering, the social media guidelines need to be in a format that is easy and simple to read. Some have argued for brevity, but in order to fulfill all of their goals they may need to include more than a little bit of text. The most important thing is that employees can easily find what they need, in which my guidelines on creating easily skimmable text may be useful.
Examples of engaging social media guidelines
I read through quite a few social media guidelines and policies in my quest to find truly engaging guidelines that make the employees want to use social media for work.
Unfortunately, they are quite difficult to find, as most social media guidelines focus on prohibiting this and that and adding a number of disclaimers.
I did find two excellent examples of what the three E’s should make your policy look like:
Both of the above documents include some rules, but they manage to maintain a positive approach and make the positive aspects of participating in social media the majority of their content.
Engaging social media guidelines are not for all companies
One important point remains to be said. Your social media guidelines ultimately depend on the social media strategy you choose to pursue.
If that strategy does not involve empowering the employees, I don’t think there is any way to create engaging social media guidelines. After all, if the policy is, for example, to prohibit social media use, it is quite difficult to create an engaging spin out of it.
There are still multiple ways to create engaging guidelines, and they can support different strategies. Some level of empowerment is nonetheless vital. Without it, there can be no enthusiasm.
What do you think, could the three E’s be applied to drafting the social media guidelines for your company?
Photo: Bernard Oh (cc)