Companies Struggle with Social Media Guidelines

Nov 06, 2009

You would be hard pressed to find a company where the bulk of employees are not on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook—likely all three and possibly many more. As organizations begin to grasp how to make social media tools part of an effective business strategy, many are developing specific guidelines for how employees can use—or not use—social media, both in the workplace and at home. Some, though, are doing it more successfully than others; recently, The Washington Post garnered criticism when its social media policy, which many perceive as draconian, was released. 

The policy covers routine issues for a media organization when it says, for example: “When using these networks, nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment. We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.”

Yet, the guidelines also dictate what employees have the right to do with personal accounts. “All Washington Post journalists relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens. Post journalists must recognize that any content associated with them in an online social network is, for practical purposes, the equivalent of what appears beneath their bylines in the newspaper or on our website. … Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything—including photographs or video—that could be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility. This same caution should be used when joining, following or friending any person or organization online.”

“I would guess that The Washington Post did not consult with any of their reporters on how they felt,” when creating this policy, says Courtney Barnes, principal member of Think Communications and co-author of “Digital Strategies for Powerful Corporate Communications.” The Washington Post declined to comment for this article.

While the policy does not forbid employee participation in social media networks, the guidelines are so limiting as to make active involvement difficult, which Barnes says is risky for a newspaper company. “Not participating in these platforms that really drive news, shape news, and are news, makes them seem even more antiquated when they are already struggling to be relevant,” say Barnes. “Journalism today is shaped by educated opinions and those really thrive in a social media landscape.”

Although companies and organizations have largely moved beyond outright banning of social media tools, some, such as the U.S. Marine Corps, have recently issued bans. In August, the Marine Corps banned the use of social media on the Corps’ network, out of concern for security, but even it has a note in the policy explaining how to obtain waivers in mission-critical situations.

Barnes, who says she expects the Post’s policy to be revised eventually, is a proponent of smart social media policies. “The best social media policies have been developed with employees and management; they draw a very clear line between representing the company and representing yourself,” she says. “The first step is to realize that the conversations are going to be happening with or without you. Avoidance is not an option. Participation is the only option. Companies need to participate so they can lead on issues with a position of understanding and advocacy instead of avoidance and ignorance.”

According to Barnes, the trick is for employers not to try to control the conversation, but to create a set of standards that makes sense for the company and to hold employees accountable.
One early adopter of social media guidelines was IBM, which created a policy back in 2005. IBM’s policy is widely respected, in large part because it is a sensible compilation of ideas and principles that was created primarily by employees via a wiki and blogs. Once developed, the policy was reviewed and approved—with minimal changes—by other departments such as legal and human resources.

“It’s been really helpful because there is a sense of ownership on the part of employees,” says Adam Christensen, social media communications manager for IBM. “There was never a feeling of ‘big bad corporate’ coming on board to mandate this.”

According to Christensen, the company has not had any major problems with employees on social media platforms, although there have been a few isolated incidents when “I’ve had to have conversation with folks saying, ‘Hey, you probably crossed a boundary.’” Not bad for a company with 400,000 employees worldwide, an estimated 17,000 of whom are bloggers and 200,000 of whom are on LinkedIn.

IBM’s policy is somewhat flexible; the company revisited the guidelines in 2008 to ensure that they fit with the evolving social media landscape. In the end, there were only a few tweaks made to the policy.

At the core of the policy is a sense of mutual trust between management and employees; the guidelines simply frame appropriate behavior in a relatively new medium. “Almost every company has some type of guidelines that say, for instance, that you can’t leak intellectual property. Social media guidelines shouldn’t be anything more than complements to those [existing policies],” explains Christensen. He adds that “If people want to have a life online separate to IBM that’s okay and frankly I don’t want to know, but where they self-identify as an IBMer or they are having a conversation related to IBM business—those are the two things we cover.”

And certainly employees have been burned by assuming that what they post on social media sites won’t come back to haunt them—especially when they blur the line between personal and professional.

Recently, Jon-Barrett Ingels, who was a waiter at the restaurant Barney Greengrass at the Barneys New York store in Beverly Hills, tweeted that the actress Jane Adams (who currently plays Tanya on the HBO series “Hung”) left without paying her check or leaving a tip. Ingels had been tweeting about his encounters with other celebrities, but this encounter caught the attention of Barneys corporate and Ingels was fired.

On his blog, “How to Succeed as a Failure,” Ingels had this to say about the incident: “I have to admit that what I did might not have had my own best interest at hand. I did not think anyone, other than the 22 people following me, would read what I tweeted. That was my ignorance to the power of social media. I understand the concerns my management and Barney’s corporate had with clientele wanting to shop and eat with discretion. I don’t know if being fired was what I deserved, but it happened. I tweeted, I lost my job, I lost my health insurance and I accept that as the consequences to my actions.”

Incidentally, he may have lost his job, but Adams returned to give Ingels a three-dollar tip after she heard about the incident on Twitter. And while we can not confirm that Ingels only had 22 followers on Twitter when the incident occurred, he currently has 1,365.