Social Media Policy Dilemma

Yesterday morning I had the pleasure to give a talk about Social Media to a great group of folks in the non-profit sector.  There was lively discussion throughout, especially when it came to social media policies.   There are many questions around where to draw the lines when it comes to a social media policy, and what boundaries are too liberal or restrictive.  The idea of using the standard blog disclaimers that “these are my personal ideas and do not represent those of the company I work for” wasn’t really going to do it for some of these organizations, especially those who were dealing with younger generations.  You know, those younger generations are OUR kids who are using social media daily for their personal use.  They haven’t thought alot about the future professional implications of posting naughty party pictures.  I know my teen prefers not to think that far ahead!

Today I came across this article by Ann Handley @MarketingProfsThree Simple Words That Should Be the Cornerstone of Any Corporate Social Media Policy and it had me thinking about my conversations yesterday.

I won’t give away the whole article, but the first word Ann names is Integrity.  That’s a huge part of social media and the idea of transparency.  In social networks, it’s all about being real, not about being fake or “corporate”.  But if companies start really pushing hard on moderating behaviors in social networks, then how is that going to work?  I can’t see it going well, no matter how I long I think about it.   We’re really talking about trusting employees to do the right thing.

I feel like we need to go back to basics and common sense.  The rules have always been that if you do something stupid when you are gainfully employed,  you’ll pay for it. Period.  Should be no surprises there, whether its on the Internet or not.

And while its true that things documented on the Internet never really go away, it doesn’t mean that a company can squash an employee’s personal Twitter or Facebook account.   That’s the scary factor for many companies.  With all the new profiles being created every day, virtually every employee is a voice and reflection of the company that employs them in some way.

But can you teach Integrity?  Trust?  Sure, you can include those words in a policy.  But will that ensure that a person will exemplify those traits?  No, it won’t.  Values in a business start at the very top and cascade down.  I always said when raising my kids that it’s Monkey See Monkey Do, not Monkey Say Monkey Do…

So it seems to me that we have a dilemma on our hands.  Companies want assurance that their employees will do the right thing when participating in social networks.  But if a social media policy is too restrictive, you’ll get a watered down version of who that company is, and that will end up reflecting poorly on the company. Go figure.

Companies who are most successful in managing this balance are those who are led by the core values of that organization.  When values like integrity and trust are demonstrated in the culture, it  tends to naturally weed out those people who don’t really fit in, and it attracts those employees who do match those values.  It becomes self-regulating. Sure there will be hiccups now and then, but they will be small blips on the screen vs. a complete meltdown. IBM has seemed to figure this out, with hundreds of employees blogging and twittering.

Companies need to learn how to swim with the fishes here in social networking.  It’s a self-regulating, self-correcting world. We are all pioneers (as Gary Mintchell said during the ISA M&S social media panel) and it’s true, we are.  There are some things we just don’t know yet, and that’s part of the adventure.  So, while it may be helpful to set guidelines in a social media policy, we also need to protect the spirit in which social media is intended so it can flourish in a beneficial way.

Is your company implementing a social media policy?  If yes, is it realistic?

Other reference links on social media policies:


  1. Ann Handley says:

    Thanks for picking up on the piece, Juliann. This is an issue I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, so it’s near and dear to my heart (and my head, I guess!) You’re right when you point out the making something like “integrity” the cornerstone of a social media policy is a little.. well, amorphous and squishy. Ultimately, it is about trusting employees to do the right thing.

    I guess my response is that, to begin with, an organization shouldn’t hire an employee that they can’t trust, or who seems to function without integrity. That might be a hard thing to measure and size up, especially when you are, say, a large retailer or similar huge corporation, with employees at all levels. But nonetheless, it seems to me that it’s a good measure to inject in the hiring process, and certainly a quality to consider in this new world.

  2. juliann says:

    Hi Ann,

    Thanks for adding your comments, and thank you for your article. While it may not have sounded like it, I did agree with your premise. It is about trusting your employees to do the right thing. This is something we hear alot about from clients and colleagues who are wrestling with social media guidelines. In the beginning, there is a sense of insecurity and a tendency to overcorrect through a policy to “prevent” bad behavior. Unfortunately too much oversight will backfire on a company too. You are right, finding people of integrity starts at the hiring process. How to sort that out is a different story, and goes well beyond what a social media policy would contain. However, social media participation can certainly help uncover qualities of “integrity” through participation, which is why it’s so important for all ages to understand how online behaviors can influence future employment or other opportunities.

    I also feel that organizations, especially non-profits that have younger kids involved who are active in social networking may want to have short training sessions on what to do, what not do to. For example, a camp counselor should not post pictures of kids from camp on their Myspace page, etc. They may not fully understand all the why’s behind a policy, but in some cases it may be important to outline the desired behaviors for those who are not fully indoctrinated in corporate culture.

    In some cases, a social media policy may be an extension of an existing Code of Conduct policy vs. creating a whole new one. The trick is to allow enough freedom for employees tasked with social media to fully benefit from transparent and honest conversations.

  3. […] liked this article because it reflects some of the concerns I had shared in a previous post about social media policy dilemmas.  Control is the issue, and policies are an attempt to control.  However the policy shared in […]

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