October 23, 2014

Social Media Policy: How to Get Started

For small business owners, creating a social media policy is an effective way to help your employees interact with customers, clarify your marketing messages and protect your credibility online. Let’s look at how to create a social media policy.

guidelines

What Is a Social Media Policy?

Here’s one definition:

“A social media policy is a set of guidelines that describes how employees should interact with customers online.”

In general, most policies provide guidelines for:

  • Corporate blogs
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

Remember, you don’t have to create individual policies for each social media site. Instead you can create a master policy document and develop short chapters for each specific site. This makes it easier to manage the document and keep changes under control.

Employee Handbooks & Social Media Policy

From one angle, you can develop your social media policy as a subset of your employee handbook.  This means that when someone joins the company, the guidelines for interacting online are covered under that chapter in the handbook.

Or, you can create a standalone document and refer to the employee handbook where necessary. This reduces the word count as, for example, you can reference legal information and HR policies in this document.

Getting Started

Like many things, taking the first step is the hardest part of developing a social media policy. So where do you start?  One approach is to look at companies in your sector, examine their policies (many are public), and use these as building blocks for your documents.

When you’re examining the policies, consider the following:

  • Tone – Is the policy formal or does it use a more relaxed conversational style? Which do you think works best? Some documents use phrases such as ‘The user shall…’ which sound a little harsh. Try to adopt a tone that is professional, helpful and respectful.
  • Length – Some policies are very short, whereas others are dense and read like legal documents. Again, see which works best for you. There’s no right or wrong.
  • Level of Information – Some policies provide general guidelines, whereas others provide more granular information, for example, detailing how to respond to a negative comment on the company blog.
  • Scope – Do the policies cover social media networks on an individual basis or do they take a broader approach? Which approach would work best for your company? Which would be easier to manage?
  • Usage – Can you see your staff using these documents? If not, why? Look for examples that you enjoy reading and that you feel would work well for your team.

Creating a Draft Document

If the idea of writing a social media policy fills you with dread, then take heart. It’s not that difficult and I’ll show you why.  In the same way that Rome wasn’t built in a day, creating your policy documents will take a while… but you’ll get there.  The trick is to break it down into manageable tasks — for example, one policy per week.

For instance, let’s start with a policy for your Facebook page:

  • Purpose – Describe the purpose of this policy in one sentence. Keep it focused and remove any ambiguity. Write in a positive tone.
  • Objectives – Outline how this policy will help readers (i.e. your employees and Facebook fans) to interact.
  • Policy – Write a short policy that outlines your expectations, position, and actions you may take if these guidelines are breached.
  • Contacts – Include contact information if the reader needs clarification.

Help or Hinder?

Why do so many people feel that social media policies are a bad thing?  The main reason policies don’t work (or get a bad reputation) is that they make it more difficult for employees to do their work. Maybe that’s not completely true, but for many employees, these policies feel like an intrusion and one more rule to follow.  How can you get around this?

I think it’s the word policy that upsets people. If this is the case, shift the tone of the document and refer to them as  guidelines, instructions and examples to give your employees more confidence when interacting online.  Then, after you have created the policies, hold an informal workshop and introduce the document.  Remember, most employees want to do their jobs well. But they sometimes get frustrated when they have to change the way they perform their daily tasks.  The workshop should reduce their anxiety and give them the direction they need.

When you start the session, work through the following items:

  • Assumptions – Remove any assumptions or misunderstandings they may have about the policies.
  • Examples – Walk them through sample policies so they understand how the policy applies to their role.
  • Scenarios – Keep the session practical by discussing scenarios where the policies will help them.

The scenario part of the workshop is very important.  Show real-world examples of where social media can cause problems, such as:

  • Staff sharing confidential information by accident
  • Responding to negative comments and getting into flame wars
  • Leaving remarks on competitors’ websites

Then show how to manage these problems more effectively. Your employees will see the value of the documents and be more inclined to use them.

Publish

Once you’ve finalized the policy documents, send a PDF to all employees. Ask them to the read it carefully and reply if they’ve noticed any gaps, errors or typos.  Then post the policy on your website, blog and other social media channels. Remember to add a date, version number and document owner so you can track document changes.

Monitor

Developing policies is a process of refinement.  Every six months, review the documents and update where necessary. For example, if you’ve launched a mobile site, you may want to include policies for this in the document. More importantly, look at the feedback you get from your team and see how this can be used to refine the text.

Conclusion

Writing your first social media policy is easier than you’d think. See it as a small project that you’re going to tackle over the next four weeks. Create a team with good writing skills and knowledge of social media, then work towards a deadline.

If you’ve already written social media policies, what’s the most difficult part of the process for you? Once you’ve created policies, how do you implement them?


Image from Dirk Ercken/Shutterstock

14 Comments ▼

Ivan Walsh


Ivan Walsh Ivan is the founder of Klariti, a popular website with one goal - to help you write more effectively. Every week, Ivan takes the mystery out of business writing and helps you write better reports, plans, procedures and white papers.

14 Reactions

  1. You’re totally right that “policy” has a negative, authoritarian connotation. A policy will therefore be viewed as restrictive and limiting. However, I prefer the sound of guidelines because the natural connotation suggested is one of direction. You set the boundaries and let your employees do the thinking. That’s really what you’re looking for anyway; employees that respond in the best manner possible to any given situation (since no set of guidelines should be so exhaustive as to cover every possible scenario).

  2. Thanks Robert,

    Yes, I try to give employees the benefit of doubt. They (like me and you) just want to do a good job – and sometimes they need direction.

    Thus the guidelines :)

    Ivan

  3. I don’t think you would let employees represent your company on any Social Media platform until they have demonstrated they can do so in a professional manner (no foul language,inflaming comments, etc…)

    If you have an employee that doesn’t agree with your guidelines then they shouldn’t be a voice for your business anyway. Most guidelines are just common sense.

  4. Hi Gary,

    re: I don’t think you would let employees represent your company on any Social Media platform until they have demonstrated they can do so in a professional manner

    How would you approach this in a company with several 1000 employees? Do you mean you would monitor their behavior or give them some test?

  5. Ivan,

    Sound advice!

    In preparation for my two speeches on October 5, I wrote a post with the title, Social Media Policy.

    I mentioned the following organizations during my presentations:

    National Library of Sweden
    IBM
    Coca-Cola
    Outspoken Media

  6. Hi Marin,

    I’ve seen the IBM policy – very good, isn’t it?

  7. Ivan,

    Yes, it is. Short and sweet. The National Library of Sweden has managed to cover everything on five pages! Do you have other good examples?

  8. Business owners should also remember that social media policies (like most other internal policies) have important legal implications–both in terms of their content and in terms of how they are used. This is alluded to in the “scenarios” portion of the article.

    For example, when employees are allowed to use social media to promote the company, endorsement, advertising and trademark/copyright rules come into play. A policy that expressly permits (or encourages) impermissible conduct–even unknowingly–can expose the company to liability. Also, a policy that is too lenient can result in unintended or premature disclosure of confidential information–also not a good thing.

    Still, policies don’t have to be lengthy or buried in legalese to contain adequate protections. It is just a matter of being aware of the issues and making an informed decision about how to address them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>



Compare your business to the industry - Try our new tool