This blog post has been updated on 25.04.2018 to reflect the recent changes in social media policy best practices.
Mountains of data points show that consumers trust human faces over logos, making advocacy a vital part of opening the door to two-way online conversation. Furthermore, marketers are able to excel at their jobs when they have a well-rounded professional e-reputation and they leverage social media networks for nurturing relationships. On paper, it’s a win-win for everyone.
In practice, though, it can be awkward for both employees and employers to transition to a practice where other people besides those running corporate communications begin to advocate on behalf of the organization. There can be many roadblocks in finding that sweet spot where advocacy programs actually deliver.
Yet the hardest ones to overcome are those blocks that exist in cultural attitudes. You might have some employees who are afraid of getting it wrong on social media, and therefore, don’t take the risk at all. Other employees might be afraid of their company forcing them to cultivate an e-reputation which is not authentic, and thus they don’t participate because they want to keep their online lives strictly private.
Without addressing these fears, your employees will lack the flexibility to grow and change, which can diminish the results of your advocacy program. This is where setting mutually shared professional values through a social media policy comes into play. It must be clear that you are not asking your employees to change who they are as people, but to refine their communication skills and make good editorial decisions for their respective audiences.
Trust at the Core: Social Media Ethics
Certain core values should be implemented as strong pillars to protect the integrity of the company and employees. Those who have been in the journalism industry long before social media existed know that the most valuable currency you can have in communications over the long term is trust. To increase your personal and organization’s trustworthiness, it makes sense to examine the fundamentals of media ethics.
The following four concepts are golden rules that should be at the center of social communications. Without trust, you lose your community’s engagement, which directly translates to failure in meeting your organization's objectives.
- Accuracy: Facts are correct and there should be no deceptive handling of information.
- Transparency: Be open with the public about who you are, what you do, and what your biases are. People want to easily recognize and understand what your brand stands for and know that you share the same values.
- Humanity: Be aware of the consequences of what you publish, and show empathy to your audience. Make sure your message doesn’t lack a tone.
- Accountability: Being capable of explaining and justifying your social media communications to the public. This can be a tough one, because this means that when we (in most cases unintentionally) violate principles of accuracy, humanity, or transparency, we should be able to apologize for our actions and quickly set the record straight.
Social Media Policy: Best Practices
Social media policies are on a continuum - the less structure you put into place, the more freedom your employees have. They’ll feel trusted and free to post what is natural to their online identity. Yet with too little structure, employees can be set up to post things which will harm them or the reputation of the company. In some cases, employees won’t post anything at all because they’ll be too afraid of getting it wrong and they don’t understand where the safe space is for them to communicate online.
If the structures of a social media policy are too tight, employees will feel like their company doesn’t trust them and are trying to turn them into sockpuppets to promote the brand.
The goal is to find the spot that is neither at the extremes of being too authoritarian, nor too permissive. Here are some basic points for your social media guidelines, as they directly support behavior that is aligned with media ethics and cultivating trust in your online community:
1. Traditional Rules of Ethics and Professionalism Apply Online
Ethical values that dictate your work offline should be the same as the presence you have online. This is where the values of transparency, accuracy, humanity and accountability come into play, which mostly boils down to common sense.
As John Robinson, the editor of The Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, commented on his social media guidelines: “We have a code of ethics and professionalism that covers our behavior, period. That said I’ve told my staff that my social media policy is this: Don’t be stupid.”
2. Respect Privacy in Social Media Communities
Social selling and employee advocacy are excellent ways to promote your brand, widen your reach and find new customers. However, its vital to respect the data privacy of social media users. Transferring names and private information from an online discussion to a company CRM is not only against best practices but in violation of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). To read more about the aspects of social media and Employee Advocacy in relation to GDPR, see this post:
3. Remember Everything Put Online Could Become Public
Even if you have information under a privacy setting, do keep in mind that nothing on the Internet is truly protected. Privacy settings on different platforms can change, and information can - and in many cases does - get leaked or hacked. Don’t be afraid to use social media, but be mindful about what you publish. Don’t post anything online that would be devastating to your career, even if it is behind a privacy wall.
4. Remain Professional and Respectful to Everyone
It can be positive for employees to engage in a two-way conversation with their respective audience and nurture those relationships. But know when the quality of the conversation has reached a level where it is no longer productive and needs to be handled elsewhere. Trolls who are engaging in hate-speech and other forms of conversation which are derogatory, sexist, racist, etc. regarding the brand should be referred to those responsible for the brand’s official communication channels.
Likewise, be respectful of your audience. Never use ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, or engage in any conduct that would not be acceptable in the workplace in real life.
In short, keep it classy and don’t feed the trolls.
5. Respect Copyright Laws
Just because something on the Internet can be easily copied and pasted doesn’t mean it’s yours. Employees should know if they can use the brand’s logo and under what circumstances. Visuals, audio and text should not be used without seeking permission from the owner if they are under copyright - otherwise they could face legal repercussions.
6. When Acting as a Brand Ambassador, Identify Yourself Online.
If you are advocating on behalf of the company or working to develop your professional e-reputation, identify who you are as an employee. Do not use aliases to try to deceive people regarding the brand. Again, transparency is key to building trust.
7. Independently Authenticate Information Found on a Social Networking Site
Just because you found it on the Internet doesn’t make it true. If you have any questions, take a bit of time to fact-check before sharing.
8. Be Transparent and Admit When You’re Wrong Online
People get it wrong online - you wouldn’t be the first. Instead of hiding from the error, quickly issue an apology. You can delete the original post to prevent that content from spreading, but do make sure you are transparent about your mistakes.
9. Keep Internal Deliberations Confidential
Brands do have the right to keep internal communications confidential. Strategy meetings and inside rumors are not the time to start using living-streaming social media platforms. If you have questions about what material is appropriate to share, ask before posting.
Once employees know the lines that will keep them out of trouble with HR, yet also allow them the space to share information that is valuable to their personal brand, they can become much more comfortable communicating online and trying out different techniques for developing a well-rounded e-reputation.
Stefanie Chernow is the founder of Socialigned and supports the customization, execution and continuous alignment of social media strategies for organizations and personal brands. For tips on social strategies and e-reputation management follow her on Twitter at @schernow.