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Companies need a social media policy: Experts

CHICAGO (Reuters) - “Write in first person. Be honest. Context matters.”

A Twitter page is displayed on an Apple iPhone in Los Angeles October 13, 2009. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

These are components of the social media policy guidelines outlined by Avvo, a Seattle, Washington-based website that helps consumers handle their legal matters by providing attorney rankings and related services.

The startup, which has quickly grown to nearly 40 employees, instituted a formal policy for controlling content on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media sites earlier this year.

“All of a sudden we had a bunch of other voices - new employees - saying things about the company,” said Josh King, Avvo’s general counsel and primary author of the document. “We just wanted to put in place a roadmap of reminders when dealing with social media.”

King and other top management drafted simple rules of conduct in cyberspace that apply to employees choosing to disclose their affiliation with the company as part of their online identity.

“Social media interaction is, in many ways, no different than in-person interaction,” states the document, titled “Avvo Social Media Participation Guidelines”. “And just like any other interaction, you’ll want to project a professional image.”

The guidelines - less than two pages in length - have since been incorporated into Avvo’s general employee handbook. The document covers hands-on social media topics ranging from “profile pictures” and “attention to detail” to “inappropriate topics” and “bad mouthing.” Those wanting to tweet or blog as official advocates of the company using a targeted marketing or sales message go through rigorous approval channels.

“I didn’t want to get terribly detailed. I didn’t want to have a bunch of ‘Mother may Is,” King said. “I basically distilled it down to a couple of core concepts, the most important of which is: always be professional.”

SOCIAL MISSION

Businesses of all sizes have recognized the brand-building benefits of participating in the social media craze. But many are still feeling their way with respect to gray areas, such as unplanned discussions or other activity involving rank-and-file workers.

Avoidance can have disastrous results. Consider Domino’s Pizza, which in April 2009 faced a media nightmare after some workers at one of its North Carolina stores decided to film a prank involving health-code violations and then post them on YouTube.

Experts said attempting to put a tight leash on social media activity is futile, as there is too much information and too many voices to rein in. Better yet, they said, is to take a route similar to Avvo; setting up simple guidelines and modeling good behavior from the top down.

Employees “are craving this, they’re craving for the leaders of their companies to say, ‘This is the initiative we’re taking and this is how we’re taking it,’” said Nick Powills, founder of No Limit Media Consulting.

No Limit specializes in the social media needs of franchised businesses, which have a complicated web of potential social media users, including corporate staff, franchisees, store-level employees, and of course, customers themselves. Powills said the development of a mission statement is often a good place to begin.

“Frankly in a lot of situations, the reason there’s no policy in place is because the leaders of the company didn’t take the initiative,” he said. “Lay out the goals, the vision. The policy doesn’t have to be crazy long, just a good two-page document of the do’s and don’ts; what the goal and plan is, the strategy and how we want to use it.”

Assigning a point person to stay apprised of content involving the company is essential, said attorney Kevin Hein, a partner with Faegre & Benson LLP in Denver. Most often that individual will already wear a marketing hat.

“Marketing people are the keepers of the brand,” he said, adding that social media policy should stipulate that marketing representatives should at the very least be apprised of any newly structured social media initiatives.

“You don’t want people going rogue,” said Hein, who added companies might consider stipulating that violation of social media policy may be grounds for termination.

Regardless of the industry, ground rules are necessary to ensure the key attributes of any brand are preserved.

Said Avvo’s King: “We don’t restrict anyone from talking about Avvo in social media - that’s where the rules come in. Any time you’re publishing information online that speaks to work as an Avvo employee, we want you to be professional.”

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