5 best practices for creating a corporate social media policy

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Bringing law & order to the Wild West isn’t always easy

Like the Wild West, social media is so new and growing at such a rapid rate that governing, monitoring or just keeping general order in regards to your company or brand can be difficult. Recently, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other media outlets have received attention on Gawker’s Valleywag, Editor & Publisher and elsewhere for their newly introduced social media policies. Many are critical of new policies and rules (particularly Bloomberg’s) as being too strict and not allowing authentic engagement. 

Nicholas Carlson argues on the Silicon Alley Insider that journalists can build a personal brand and drive traffic to their sites through engagement, but that involves sharing opinions, personal anecdotes and links to articles and sites that they aren’t affiliated with. He recommends that they should use “less Draconian” rules like “Don’t give away story ideas” or “Be a human, but a good one.”

Those suggestions are terrific, however, we’ve seen many horror stories where some employees don’t use their best judgment. Remember the FedEx Twitter fiasco and the Virgin Atlantic employees who got canned for badmouthing passengers on Facebook? We all have different definitions of ‘appropriate’ and ‘ethical.’

So how do you create guidelines that foster openness and encourage growth while still establishing what is appropriate for your company? Obviously, every organization is different, but here are five best practices for creating a corporate social media policy:

  1. Think like a spokesperson. Social media has given a voice to the everyman, so each employee and company representative with a Facebook page, Twitter account, etc. is a company spokesperson. What kind of rules or guidelines does your spokesperson have? Are they limited on what they can and can’t reveal about the company? Do they have specific messaging in regards to particular topics? If so, these may be great guidelines for employees using social media.
  2. Designate representatives. Decide who your social media representatives are and give them limitations on personal involvement. Everyone else can be involved with social media personally, but shouldn’t identify themselves with your company or brand. Now, maybe you want everyone in your organization to be involved. That’s great and very open and progressive of you. Just remember, each individual voice out there on the interwebs representing your brand is just that: an individual voice that will share ideas and opinions – some of which you may not agree with.
  3. Avoid jargon. If your social media policies are written like a build-your-own-custom-cabinetry manual, employees may not take the rules to heart – or may not understand them. Instead of “Manifestations of misrepresentations of corporate ethos via social networking are regarded as exploitations of contractual policies of employment and will be reinforced,” say “Do not mention information about our company or brand that isn’t publicly available. Do not say anything that compromises the integrity of our company.”
  4.  Identify off-limit subjects. Decide ahead of time what can and cannot be discussed and share that with your company’s social media representatives. Don’t assume that everyone knows what is controversial or aligned with your brand’s culture and ethics. Think about every angle – do you want to avoid mentioning competitors? What about curse words – are you okay with certain ones? The more specific you can be, the easier your guidelines will be to enforce.
  5. Open a discussion. It’s sort of like teenage sex – we know they are going to do it, so we need to talk to them about it. Sticking your head in a hole in the ground and hoping that your employees aren’t representing you on social networks is futile. Talk to your employees about their engagement and solicit ideas and suggestions for your corporate social media policy.

Above all, remember the word ‘social’ in social media and social networking. It is nearly impossible to remove personality and opinion from social media involvement – nor should that be your goal. But with a little controlled messaging and a few basic guidelines, you can create an environment that fosters growth through social media without risking embarrassment or worse from an employee.

About Heidi Sullivan

One of PRWeek’s 40 under 40 in 2012, Heidi Sullivan is Senior Vice President of Digital Content for Cision and a self-proclaimed social media metrics nerd. She leads the company’s digital and broadcast content teams, the global research team for Cision’s media database, Cision’s social media community team and the company’s content marketing strategy. You can find her on Twitter @hksully.

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