How to create effective social-media guidelines

Social media use continues to increase within organizations, yet very few companies have policies giving employees guidance about what to do.

Without such guidance, organizations run the risk that employees will make mistakes in trying to balance the personal and the professional, either by posting something unwise on a personal site or making a faux pas while posting on behalf of the company. But such organizations are also missing out on rewards — their employees will be less likely to take advantage of opportunities to build both their own personal online brands and benefit their employers.

There’s no magic bullet when it comes to creating a social media policy, nor is there a form to fill out that is guaranteed to work for your organization: look at the differences between Yahoo!‘s “risk vs. reward” approach, Ford‘s reliance on common sense, and The Journal Register Company’s deliberately cheeky simplicity. But while there’s no shortage of policies and templates to consider in creating your own social media policy, the best ones share a few characteristics:

  • They’re helpful, proactive guides about what employees should do online, instead of lists of actions that are prohibited.
  • They encourage consistency within an organization, reinforcing branding, shared values and best practices.
  • They encourage employees to share and respect the opinions of one another, instead of living in fear of the reaction for sharing personal thoughts.

Limitations to consider

One of the most important points for an employer to make clear in a social media policy is what online expression about the workplace is acceptable. But just like employees, employers need to mindful of limits.

Section 7 of the the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) grants both union and non-union employees the right to engage in “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection, having to do with wages, hours or terms and conditions of employment,” and warns such activity is protected “and so cannot be restricted by the employer.”

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has begun to keep a close eye on organizations’ social media policies, particularly those that could be viewed as directly or indirectly chilling employees’ free speech in violation of the law. The board has found social media guidelines that directly or indirectly restrict the right to discuss wages and working conditions to be unlawful, even in Facebook conversations — such discussions have been considered concerted activities and therefore protected.

While the NLRB offers guidance for employers in crafting their policies, relying on such guidance doesn’t guarantee compliance with the law, and some have found the NLRB standards confusing or impractical to implement. Organizations should consider consulting with an attorney before implementing their own policy.

Elements of a strong policy

Best practices can yield valuable suggestions for creating social media policies, but they’re only suggestions — your organization’s needs will be unique, and best practices should be viewed within the context of who you are and what you seek to accomplish. That said, below are some best practices that have gained widespread acceptance:

  • Set out your organization’s strategic goals for social media and the role played by both the guidelines and each employee’s social media use in achieving those goals.
  • Explain any relevant legal concerns, such as copyright or defamation, that apply to employees’ social media use. Primers about such subjects can be very helpful for employees.
  • Make sure your social media policy works in tandem with other policies — this can be an excellent opportunity to enhance existing privacy and communication policies. Specifically, emphasize the importance of protecting trade secrets or confidential information.
  • Include guidance that’s agnostic and can apply to all types of social media tools and sites, even ones that don’t yet exist. While it’s important to tailor some aspects of a policy specifically to particular sites you know your employees are using, such as Facebook or Twitter, it’s also important to anticipate new tools and uses of them.
  • Provide clarity about the role social media plays (or doesn’t play) in a particular positions. While social media may be a priority for employees in certain positions, it may not be as important for those in other positions. Clarifying expectations can help employees make the most effective use of their work time.
  • Stress the importance of taking responsibility for what you do online. Develop and encourage a decision-making process for make good judgments when creating and or sharing content found on social media.
  • Encourage social media use that’s in the best interest of both the employee and the organization. Trust is the lubricant of all good relationships, especially online ones. Getting to know one’s online audience can yield useful feedback for content creation and help employees better understand what the audience expects from them and their organization.
  • Be clear how employees will be held accountable and what they can expect to happen if they don’t meet expectations.

Approach, execution and enforcement

Social media policies aren’t just about content — it’s also important to consider the approach your organization will take in creating a policy, communicating it and enforcing it. For example, who should be involved in creating the policy’s content? And what training will employees need to understand the policy and abide by its expectations?

Social media policies are essential to encouraging effective social media use within your organization — but overreaching rules can stifle speech and creativity, harm morale and even expose your organization to legal trouble. With a little thought and care, you can craft a social media policy that will instead give employees the skills and guidance they need to make smart choices, building their own brands and burnishing the online reputations of their organizations.

Related: How the Associated Press verifies user-generated content | How journalists can verify user-generated content on social media

While Ellyn Angelotti is an attorney, this article is for informational purposes only and is not to be considered legal advice.

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  • robi007

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  • http://www.poynter.org/ellyn Ellyn Angelotti

    Yes, @jonathan_bernstein:disqus , you bring up a lot of sensitive situations that address key pressure points. A proactive plan for handling a crisis, disaster, litigation, etc. are all crucial to have in your guidelines. And, examples of best practices of and developing guidelines for a crisis could be a whole other subject we could discuss in the future. Thanks for the great addition.

  • Jonathan Bernstein

    Ellyn, this is great. I would offer one important addition – the need to ensure that any social media policy includes special guidelines regarding social media during times of crises. Disasters, reputation threats, litigation situations and other common crises all mandate more careful management of communications, while still respecting First Amendment rights.

  • http://www.poynter.org/ellyn Ellyn Angelotti

    Thanks, @jta0033:disqus, you bring up another important element of a social media policy (and a great potential topic for a future article!). The short answer is it comes down to having a clear sense of your organization’s values, and how your resulting actions reinforce those values. For example, by inviting user content, your organization is showing it values community and engagement. However, you also want to minimize any harm that could result from posts that could cause to others in the community. This represents an ethical pressure point. Creating a social media policy that addresses user-generated content is a great opportunity to set out your values, identify possible pressure points in situations you regularly face and suggest possible alternatives to navigating these situations. Using actual examples you and your colleagues encounter can provide great teaching moments to help you create a decision-making process for the future.

  • jta0033

    This great and all, but are there any tips anywhere on how to better effectively handle social media that come in from the public? My small town newspaper get tons of photos and announcement from the community and we are walking that line between letting just enough get on our Facebook and getting so much we can’t possibly moderate it all. I’d love some resources from the experts.