I write social media policies. But whenever I'm asked to do so I review the relevant organisation's culture, market and personnel. As we'll see this context is important if you want to know how to write a social media policy.
A social media policy can be as short as a few paragraphs, a few pages or longer. A consideration governing length is - what is the purpose of the social media policy? In simple terms there are two purposes usually present - messages on what conduct is approved and what is disapproved.
As social media continues to grow (see graphics below), so do legal issues. People are people, offline and online.
Social media is still "new" (particularly for audiences familiar only with television, radio and newspapers). This keeps it ripe for moral panics and exaggerated over-emphasis in traditional media. Their focus is on bad things that can and do sometimes take place with a connection to Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites.
In 2009 and 2010 constantly in the news are privacy issues arising in various countries due to the data gathering and data sharing practices of Google and Facebook, and their users.
The implication typically generated and left open in much of the criticism is that somehow the risks are greater in social media than they are offline. This can lead to ill-informed calls for social media policies to be written for public and private sector organisations to put the online sites or users into straight jackets. So some companies introduce policies which heavily restrict use of social media or block access completely.
The title of our following article captures our view - Lawyers blocking social media is not a policy.
Yes, there are risks that can arise from employee use of social media which make or leave a connection to a workplace. For treatment of the risks it is useful to review long standing approaches and risk treatment mechanisms.
Offline social activities have long been a source of legal issues and sometimes major claims. They include office bullying, harassment, discrimination and inappropriate behaviour during parties. The established mechanisms for minimising or treating these types of risks include:
law - eg imposing contractual obligations on employees and contractors and following up breaches or issuing warnings (preparing the contracts and dealing with issues relating to human resources is part of our regular work)
policies and procedures - contained in office manuals, eg a grievance handling procedure (we are currently drafting a couple of such manuals)
training - courts and regulatory authorises recognise the value of regular training, recognising that documentation alone is on its own insufficient (we refer clients to specialist trainers).
The application of these mechanisms builds part of an organisation's culture. Perhaps building organisational culture can do more than any law, policy, procedure or training to promote and nurture appropriate and lawful behaviour.
Which brings us back to the online world of social media. Given the above combination of established mechanisms used for offline activities, it's odd to talk as if an additional document (ie a social media policy) can do the job on its own.
Where treatment beyond law is needed, we sometimes refer clients to highly experienced social media specialists skilled in training and coaching clients to use social media technology and channels to achieve a range of organisational goals, not just legal risk minimisation. A long term colleague, and one of Australia's most experienced coaches for use of social media, is Des Walsh.
Des emphasises that a good social media policy should reflect the circumstances, culture and goals of the organisation using it. We both agree that you should not let your organisation fall victim to moral panics. You might be putting your business into a straightjacket.
Graphics credit: The Economist, 28 January 2010