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Corporate Online Social Media Policies: A Necessity in Today’s Business Environment
By Stephanie Brown, Interactive PR Specialist

Social networking is the leading phenomena in modern society. You likely hear mentions of Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Digg, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube on a daily basis, regardless of whether or not you participate in this new media. These tools are the new way of networking. Simply, online social media is about dialogue, two-way discussions that bring people together in order to discover and share information. According to web-strategist.com, on average, each adult with a social networking profile is on 1.6 sites and 39 percent of adults have profiles on two or more sites. Further, 57 percent of adults have joined a social network, making it the number one platform for creating and sharing content.

Whether or not you personally participate in social media, it is likely that others at your company do. Maybe more important, it is likely that your customers or potential customers also participate in social media. Forrester recently released a report stating that buyers in the business-to-business (B2B) arena are one of the most social groups around.

But, integrating social media is tough as it results in the perfect storm of marketing, HR, legal and personal privacy issues. What can and should employees say online? Are they allowed to participate in social media during regular work hours? In many cases, employees fail to recognize or remember that what is posted online stays online and even if they are doing it on their personal time, if they are identified as an employee of your company, their comments will likely be viewed as representing your organization. The factors and arguments for and against are varied and complex. However, the constant is the need for companies to create online social media policies to guide employees’ decisions and behavior.

Why You Can’t Ignore Social Media
Let’s face it — online social media is here to stay. In April 2004, no one was using online social media. But just five years later, according to compete.com, 91 million were using Facebook, 73 million were using YouTube, 14 million were using Twitter and 12 million were using LinkedIn. And, those numbers are already outdated. According to a study conducted by Cone Business in 2008, 93 percent of Americans believe a company should have a presence in online social media and 56 percent of American consumers feel both a stronger connection with and better served by companies when they can interact with them in a social media environment. Constructive Communication, Inc. – a PR firm that specializes in the design and construction industry — recently conducted an online social media survey of the architecture/engineering/construction industry in which 75 percent of respondents said that they personally interact with online social media regularly, while 80 percent of companies rarely interacted with online social media.

But, these social outlets go well beyond networking. Using online social media tools is also a powerful means to market. By participating in association groups through LinkedIn, or contributing to a blog related to your industry, you have the chance to share expertise and strategically position your firm as the expert. A proactive and organized effort can help build awareness and a leadership position. For example, a product supplier recently used Twitter to drive traffic to their World of Concrete booth, a structural engineer used LinkedIn as a means to share viewpoints on how the seismic code influences design, and a contractor used Facebook as a recruiting tool.

The Danger
Since almost everyone has access to the Internet, human resources professionals, recruiters and college admission counselors are researching potential candidates using social media before hiring or accepting them into their organizations. There are even examples of construction or architecture firms that have lost contracts because the owner did not approve of inappropriate photographs on the project manager’s Facebook profile. Also, some companies have experienced backlash after their employees shared political viewpoints on Twitter. Another example of the danger of social media is the natural tendency to share what, in many cases, is too much information. Case in point — there are many examples of employees complaining about their company, boss and/or fellow employees on Facebook without giving thought to the notion that their comments are public. These examples validate the need for all organizations to manage the online social media process and what is being said about the company and/or its employees.

Many companies are encouraging employees to explore responsible online communication as a form of relationship building, learning and collaboration. As a company continues to introduce new methods and products, it becomes important for that company and its employees to share the exciting things they are doing as well as learn from others. While companies should encourage all employees to join a global conversation, it is important for everyone to understand what is recommended, expected and required when they discuss company-related topics, whether at work or on their own time.

Creating the Policy
No different than any other policy, the first step is education. It is important that those responsible for making the policy are educated about social media, its benefits, as well as its drawbacks and dangers. Only then can you answer the tough questions related to how, when and where employees should be able and encouraged to participate. Building on an awareness of the different outlets, it is key to craft a policy that includes details related not only to when and how they participate, but guides their behavior.

Suggestions that may be incorporated into your policy include:

  • The employee should stick to their area of expertise and provide
    individual perspectives on what is going on at the company

  • Post meaningful and respectful comments

  • Always pause and think before posting

  • Respect proprietary information and content

  • Respect confidentiality

  • When disagreeing with others, keep it polite and appropriate

  • Comply with copyright, fair use, and financial disclosure laws

  • When in doubt about posting content, get permission

The policy should also state how employees are expected to engage. Recommend that your employees stay transparent by using their real name and the company name. Other tips for employees would be to write what they know, stay consistent, join in the conversation, add value, create excitement, be a leader and admit a mistake if necessary. Reiterate that employees are responsible for the content they produce. Also, decide if employees are allowed to use this medium while at work and if so, how long while at work.

Another important element of your program is monitoring the conversations. If you are promoting conversations about your company, it is time to start monitoring all conversations. Monitoring services, provided by companies such as Radian6, Cision and Vocus allow you to set up multiple keywords associated with your company.

Dive In!
Online social media is not going away. Even if it is something you choose not to allow employees to participate in, it is crucial that you educate yourself and your leadership team in order to gain optimal positive exposure for your company, as well as alleviate any threats. Online social media policies are necessary to ensure that you are protecting your organization by setting boundaries for what employees can and should not do online, while also empowering your employees to use social media tools to help grow business and establish your leadership role. Key to success is a policy that guides decisions as well as behavior.

About the Author: Stephanie Brown is the Interactive PR Specialist for Constructive Communication, Inc. – a firm that specializes in PR and marketing communications for the design and construction industry. Stephanie helps members of the industry integrate social media into their marketing programs using best practices for the business-to-business marketplace. She can be reached at sbrown@constructivecommunication.com.
 


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