Social media is now an integral aspect of business and communication. But along with the many benefits social media platforms offer businesses – such as increased user engagement and the ability to raise brand awareness – there are also many opportunities for things to go very wrong, very publicly, very fast.

Just think, what if an employee tweets something negative about a customer? Reveals confidential information? Posts a photo you don’t have any rights to use? Shares inflammatory social or political remarks? Engages negatively with a competitor or a critic?

When things go wrong

In mid-2016, the Bank of America had to address this very issue when an employee made repeated use of the n-word on a Facebook account. Following the post, the Bank was quickly flooded with criticism and forced to issue another post condemning the comments of the employee. The Bank then went a step further and announced that the person’s employment had been terminated.

It’s easy to think that common sense would prevail and prevent these situations. But common sense is anything but common – and never more so than when the behavioural parameters have not been clearly set out.

So why have a social media policy?

There are two overarching considerations: brand protection, and crisis management.

At a very basic level, a social media policy exists to provide employees with guidelines for communicating with the world appropriately on behalf of the business. The policy should:

  • Say what it is for, and why the business has adopted it;
  • List any documents the policy should be read in conjunction with (e.g. staff codes of conduct);
  • State and align itself with the business’s cultures and values;
  • Explain what acceptable conduct is;
  • Explain what unacceptable conduct is;
  • Set out any applicable processes that posters need to follow, or say where to find them;
  • Say what to do when things go wrong;
  • Identify a ‘go to’ person if the poster is ever in doubt; and
  • Include some useful FAQs.

By identifying both acceptable and unacceptable conduct, a reference point is set. Similarly, by aligning itself with the business’s cultures and values, a social media policy can turn the ‘airy fairy’ to concrete by saying how those cultures and values are to be observed and achieved.

A specific ‘go to’ person is absolutely key as it further reduces the likelihood of non-compliance. The ‘go to’ person may also wish to run or inform the business’s social media training and champion the business’s social media policy.

Taking the time to engage with employees about the policy is an effective way of ‘taking their temperature’, gaining their important viewpoints and learning from their experiences, and ensuring that the business’s expectations are clearly understood.

Monitoring and enforcement

As a second step towards protecting the business’s brand, it is important that social media use is monitored. This can be tricky.

On the one hand, a diligent employer will want to ensure that any social media posts on behalf of the business are appropriate, consistent and sensible. On the other hand, intense monitoring can slow things down, eat up resources, and cause unnecessary concern amongst employees – all restricting the creativity that is sometimes key to success in the social media space.

It’s always going to be a matter of balance, and dependent on each business’s own tolerance for risk, the space they operate in, their target audience, and the sensitivities of their customers and stakeholders.

What about social media for personal use?

Many businesses allow personal social media use while at work, some restrict it, and some prohibit it. Again, this will be informed by commercial and business culture factors that are specific to each business.

A blanket ban on personal social media use at work is likely to be regarded as outmoded – and where employees bring their own device, virtually unworkable.

To be clear about its rules, what a business considers acceptable and not acceptable in terms of personal use should also be included in a separate section of its social media policy.

Looking ahead

The use of social media at work is only going to increase, and the social media environment changes all the time. Businesses should review their social media policy regularly (at least twice a year) to make sure it remains specific, relevant, and effective to their brand protection needs.

Words by Gwendoline Keel, Sales, Marketing, Venue and Events Law Specialist at Simpson Grierson.

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