Don’t Blame the Tool: The Case for Social Media Guidelines

Is social media good or bad for organizations and for society?  The debate rages on.  We hear stories of revolutions being enabled by individuals who now have an outlet to share their grievances and the ability to organize across distances, as well as gratified customers who are able to get instant feedback to their questions and concerns.  On the internal side of organizations,  there are stories of how social media has enabled employees to participate in organizational strategies and collaborate with peers in remote locations.  These cases extol the virtues of  engagement and recognize the value of enabling individuals and employees to have a voice.   It would appear that social media is a tool for good and a way for all of us to be heard.

Yet, we also hear stories of misuse, such as a policeman in Albuquerque, New Mexico listing his job on Facebook as “human waste disposal” or an angry  teacher in Philadelphia writing about  her students that “They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners“.  Of course, these displays are not limited to those in the public sector.  There are plenty of stories of employees being disciplined and or fired after writing negative comments about their managers, employers and customers on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. We scratch our heads and ask, what were they thinking?

Should we be surprised at what appears to be in many cases a lack of judgment?  Aren’t these tools new and aren’t many still experimenting?  Or, perhaps many are still a bit giddy with their ability to publish and be heard.  Some, I am sure, are mislead by the intimacy that is created as they sit alone with their computers.   They might not think about how things have a way of being retweeted or going viral.    Clearly, Congressman Anthony Weiner learned this lesson all too well.

So what should we do to protect folks from themselves or our employees and companies from being embarrassed or put out of business?    The simple answer is to develop social media guidelines, train folks on them, implement and monitor them and reward those who comply and punish those that don’t.  But, unfortunately, there is nothing really simple about doing this.  This is probably the reason that only about a third of American companies currently have social media guidelines in place.

One of the lessons many companies have learned in developing and implementing social media guidelines is that one size fits all guidelines do not make sense.  Social media guidelines need to reflect the industry one is in, the organizational  culture, the existing structure and represent the needs of multiple stakeholders.  They cannot simply be created as an HR owned exercise or developed by an isolated committee with good intentions.  If management or employees do not understand what they mean or how to implement them, the actual guidelines will not do any good.  Like all change, there will be resistance, so getting those that are impacted engaged in the process is critical.  And, since this is about communications, one must make sure marketing and communications professionals are included and actively involved.

Employees play a large role in shaping a company’s brand.  They can serve as brand ambassadors and help promote core values or new products.  But, it is important that they know what is expected of them, and how they should engage on both internal social media platforms and external ones.  Otherwise they may inadvertently hurt the brand or alienate current and future customers.

It is wise to take advantage of those organizations that have learned how to do this well.  Many have learned the hard way what works and what does not.  For starters, check out IBM’s, Intel’s and Kodak’s guidelines.  They are on-line and all you need to do is Google them.  But remember this needs to be the start of the process, not the end.   Social media is a tool and like all tools the instructions for use are critical.  Social media can be a source of good or bad…the key is to recognize the value of using the tools correctly and the danger of doing things poorly.   If you  think your employees are not participating in  social media and you do not need to do something about this, you are probably wrong.  I can almost assure you that they  are indeed talking about you!!  But, if you do not have the skill or time to do this yourself, have no fear, you can always  hire a consultant (hint hint)!

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