It’s Never Too Early to Adopt a Social Media Policy

Photo: Steven RollBy Steve Roll
Past President

The sluggish economy and profound changes taking place in the publishing industry make this a particularly difficult time for those working in the business press. One of the few bright spots on the horizon — especially for those of us who cater to a niche audience — appears to be the rise of social media. Wikipedia defines “social media” as “media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques.”

Previously, a magazine or a television station would produce the content and then disseminate it to its users. Social media turns this model on its head by giving a publication’s users the power to be content producers. This is a critical transformation for the business press because very often our readers are one of the best sources for practical insights regarding the industries we cover. With more opportunities to interact with the professionals in the industries we cover, it seems likely that we can increase the readership of our publications and become even more relevant to our existing subscribers.

Recognizing this, most publications have begun to embrace social media platforms such as blogs and networking communities like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Willingness to Experiment. This willingness to experiment with social media places the business press well ahead of several other industries. About 50 percent of companies prohibit their employees from using social media at work, according to a survey conducted by Robert Half Technology.

While social media presents opportunities, it’s important to consider its challenges. Chief among them is the risk that someone representing a publication will make an unscripted, unedited remark, could insult or alienate the readers or advertisers its trying to attract.

Most publications recognize this risk, but the conversations I’ve had with other business press editors suggest that many publications are just beginning to formulate a social policy. This is consistent with other types of companies that are using social media. More than one in three businesses have not adopted a social media policy, according to a survey released in July (PDF) by advertising firm Russell Herder and law firm Ethos Business Law.

Part of the reason for the delay probably stems from social media’s early age. It’s difficult to formulate a policy about something you don’t entirely understand.

Start with the Basics. But it’s never too early to adopt a policy, says Chris Boudreaux the creator of the Social Media Governance website. “I guarantee that your employees are already using social media,” Boudreaux said. “If you are still learning as an organization, then start with a basic policy that helps employees make smart decisions, as best you can. Then, as you learn, and as you expand your use of social media in the organization, update your policies accordingly.”

Not adopting guidelines for social media use has its own risks. It could inhibit staff members from making good use of social media applications. For instance, why should a reporter stick her neck out by communicating with industry professional on Twitter if her employer doesn’t sanction such communications? With no policy at all, it’s only too easy for an employee to imagine being terminated for a negative outcome.

“Clarifying boundaries for your employees helps them to conduct positive an constructive interactions in social spaces,” Boudreaux said. “As leaders of teams or organizations, we owe it to our people to think about the boundaries that make sense for our organizations, and make then clear to our people. If we wait until employees find and break those boundaries ahead of us, then we have only ourselves to blame as leaders.”

Of course, a formal policy is no panacea. People have been saying inappropriate and regrettable things for as long as they’ve been having interactions, and that’s not likely to change.

Risks. This makes it even more important to adopt policies aimed at reducing the likelihood of this risk and knowing what to do about it when it arises.

What I’ve learned from helping to establish rules for social media conduct for my company is that it makes sense to have two sets of policies: one addressing the staffs’ “private” use of social media, and another for messages sent out on behalf of their publication.

Policies addressing employees’ activities on their personal blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter accounts could, among other things:

  • clarify that existing rules governing company use of electronic media such as e-mail (e.g., prohibitions against sending porn) apply to social media as well;
  • address whether editorial staff may post messages offering an opinion about the particular area they cover — this can impact your publication’s objectivity;
  • prohibit the disclosure of the company’s confidential information or violation of it’s intellectual property rights.

Guidelines. Other guidelines might state how the publication would like employees to disclose their employment in their private media (e.g., on their personal blog) and how employees should respond to press inquiries regarding their private use of social media, Boudreaux said.

The rules for social media interactions on behalf of a publication could establish things such as:

  • participating in social media on behalf of the company is not a right, but an opportunity that should be treated respectfully and seriously;
  • social media initiatives (i.e., blogs, LinkedIn groups, Facebook pages), are a collaborative endeavor that must be planned in advance with the appropriate editorial and marketing managers;
  • content posted on company blogs or LinkedIn groups must be reviewed and approved by a managing editor;
  • when using social media on behalf of the company use your own name and be clear about your job title etc.
  • recognize that you are interacting with a sophisticated audience that can quickly spot inaccurate information. Limit your efforts to subjects with which you are familiar; and
  • if you make a mistake, admit it and quickly correct it.

Another important thing to address is the expected response time to customers or prospects, Boudreaux added.

To be sure, having social media policies in place won’t prevent problems from arising from time to time. But they can help to ensure that everyone at your publication is reading from the same playbook. They are also likely to make employees think twice about sending out a bad tweet and encourage more staff to get into the social media game.

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