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Short, Sweet and Simple: For Social Media Policies, Simpler Is Better; It’s Complicated: Or Maybe It’s Not and GCs Are Just MAKING It Complicated

Douglas J. Wood, Special to the corporate counsel

I’m often asked to draft corporate policies or suggest best practices for social media interactions between employees and customers. In this column, I’ll explore such policies and practices and suggest that many policies are far more complicated than need be and actually create unintended liabilities that could be easily avoided.

Social media activities by employees create any number of concerns for companies managing their workforce employees’ discourse with one another, employees interjecting themselves in a company’s marketing communications with consumers, and employees’ online chats and postings unrelated to their jobs but that may be associated with their employer.

As brand owners spend more than $24 billion annually on advertising online, it’s clear that online activities, including social media, are key tactical tools in virtually every major corporation’s marketing arsenal. It’s also clear that consumers of every age are comfortable with online purchasing, despite reported privacy concerns.

At the same time, social media has become an amazing vehicle for social debate and change. What’s unfolding in the Middle East with the fall of Egypt and Tunisia is only the beginning. There are at least eleven other totalitarian regimes believed to be targets for change.

All of this online activity has caught the global attention of billions of people. It’s how we communicate, whether through the Internet or mobile media. We log on, we post, and we Tweet. Peers, more than any other source of information, are motivating not just individual consumers, but entire nations.

With all this change comes an increasingly unpredictable marketplace. Make a mistake and countless consumers will attack your executives, brands, and companies. Try to suppress online speech, and millions of citizens of the Internet Nation will bring a government down.

Amid all of this, companies are searching for ways to control their risks. An easy target is their online social media policies. Hence the stampede to adopt them in all shapes and forms, ranging from the simple to the absurdly complex.

Click here for examples of policies from more than 30 major companies. In reading a few, it’s pretty easy to find those probably written by lawyers and those where marketing executives lead the drafting. And while one blogger suggested legal counsel should “own” the social media policy, the best approach is to ensure the policy is a balance between what the lawyers think address risks and what corporate executives need to keep employees and consumers engaged. Because in the end, while a company can adopt all the restrictions it likes, doing so is highly unlikely to influence behavior.

Policies also need to be monitored and enforced. Is that really the best use of company manpower? If you write them in legalese or in a threatening tone, you’ll only be seen as repressive. In the online world, being repressive is a mortal sin.

What should a policy contain? In short, as little as possible. In general, employees know the difference between right and wrong. Don’t lecture them. Don’t treat them like children. They know they’re not supposed to tell the world confidential information. And they understand that what’s on the Internet never really goes away and can haunt you forever.

Enough people have been publicly burned for most to have learned that lesson well. Today, consumers are far more sophisticated than in years past. And while there are certainly anecdotal disasters, they are few and far between given the volume of online activity.

While I’d like to suggest not having a written policy at all, that isn’t realistic given rules dictated by federal regulators, in particular the Federal Trade Commission, and similar government and non government authorities all over the world. As a lawyer, I also can’t bring myself to say that things need not be in writing. That’s blasphemy.

So what should the policy include? Consider these suggestions (not mandates):

Do not cut and paste from other policies. Customize the policy to reflect your company’s workplace environment. If you try to put a long list of restrictions in a social media policy for a company in the creative community, you’re wasting your time. Be flippant in a policy for a bank and you’ll look like a fool. Each policy must be tailored to the company. Take care that whatever is written is consistent with other corporate policies. Some social media policies cite or link to a host of related corporate dictates. That’s a mistake. Do not require those reading the social media policy to link to or look to other rules. Make it too complicated through links and citations, and you’ll lose the employees interest in a nanosecond (indeed, companies might learn to look at their other policies and ask themselves if they’re really written in a manner that actually invites reading). Do not write them in legalese. Do not threaten employees with dire consequences should they err. Use a lawyer who knows how to write prose, not briefs.Do not state the obvious. Do you really think employees need to be told to be honest and transparent? For those who don’t, nothing you say will change them. Give your employees some credit. They’ve earned it.

If you’re addressing blogging activities, refer to technical rules like those required under the Federal Trade Commission Guidelines. If only governments and regulators really knew how impotent they are in governing online activities! Read my other columns on corp (also here and here). Monitor your suppliers in the social media space. The weakest link in the chain will destroy even the best thought-out policy. In the end, follow what I call the 3 Ss Short, Sweet, and Simple. The entire policy should fit on one page. Some companies publish beautiful four-color brochures outlining their policies and views. But do their employees really read it? Like it or not, we live in the 140 character world of Twitter. And while I’d love to see a Tweet-friendly social media policy, I concede we’re not there yet. But wouldn’t it be enough to Tweet, “Be smart, honest, and original. Don’t insult, tell secrets, or harass. Follow the Golden Rule. Got it?” And that’s with 38 characters to spare!

Go ahead. Don’t be afraid. Become part of the new world, join the Internet Nation and embrace the social media community.

Your employees already are. But do so with eyes wide open to both the benefits and the risks, understanding that company employees are going to be there whether their employers like it or not. They’re going to talk about anything they’d like to talk about. And they’ll make some mistakes. But trust them to be smart enough to treat company information with care, value intellectual property,and respect their colleagues.

Doug Wood – We Expert

Reprinted from Corporate Counsel,

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admin had written 358 articles for Party of We

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