Social Media Policy

Social media policy can help minimise online risks

The last year has been littered with examples of brands failing on social media. In one of the notable incidents, clothing chain Urban Outfitters thought it would be a good idea to promote a series of rather tasteless offers relating to Hurricane Sandy via Twitter. Its tweets offered free shipping which included the hashtag #ALLSOGGY during a storm that claimed the lives of over 50 people.

The incident is the latest in a line of mishaps by brands who have used social media poorly and suffered from negative PR as a result. In 2012 US homeware brand KitchenAid rather foolishly decided to enter into the realm of political commentary by tweeting an insult about President Obama’s dead grandmother during one of the presidential debates. Nestle also encountered a backlash on social media when it responded unprofessionally to negative comments from members of the public on its own Facebook Page. Brands are also concerned about the reputational risks that can come from employees using social media in their personal lives. In response to social media risks, a number of public sector organisations including The Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, have issued warnings to employees that revealing too much personal information on sites such as Facebook and Twitter could put their careers at risk. Brands are also particularly concerned about the harm that can be caused by members of the public who can post comments on the brand’s Facebook Page.

However, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter are used very successfully by brands and organisations on a daily basis. The ones that are using social media well have taken time to learn how social media works and how they should communicate through it. The problem here isn’t the channels. Rather, the problem of poor social media practice nearly always lies with senior staff failing to understand how to use it properly and not working out a plan for communicating via social media. There’s also an issue with resourcing. In the case of KitchenAid and Nestle, the marketing teams had thought it prudent to hand over responsibility for using Twitter and Facebook to untrained interns and who went on to confirm that common sense isn’t actually that common!

Social Media Policy

One of the consequences of social media risks has been for some organisations to create a layer of bureaucracy around social media posts. Social media posts are then treated as corporate press releases with each Tweet and Facebook post having to be checked over and approved by senior staff. I’ve witnessed some organisations even trying to lessen risks by disabling the ability of members of the public to post on their Facebook Pages – essentially taking the ‘social’ out of social media and turning them into one-way broadcast tools. Both approaches don’t work as they miss the point of how social media operate as fast, real-time channels for engaging feedback from people.

The solution to using social media effectively and safely depends on a combination of factors including staff training, monitoring and, most of all – developing an overall social media policy. Creating and implementing a social media policy that is robust, effective and workable is now a vitally important part of social media planning for large businesses and public sector organisations.

Broadly speaking, a social media policy defines what is acceptable and unacceptable from (a) employees who represent your organisation through social media channels, and (b) members of the public who post comments to your organisation’s social media channels.

Employees communicating on behalf of an organisation through the organisation’s social media channels need to adopt the right tone of voice when communicating with people, how to manage problem customers and understand the importance of timely responses. They also need to be aware of behaviour that is inappropriate such as insulting behaviour, or making offensive comments etc. The next major area you need to consider and address as part of your social media policy concerns guidelines for the general public on your own channels. Think of this section as ‘house rules’ for what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of comments and behaviour on your social media channels. Finally, organisations need to address the control, management and resourcing of social media channels so that the right staff are using social media and have the right training and support to do it well.


Written by Paul McGarrity. Paul is Director of Octave Online Communications, an internet marketing consultancy based in Belfast. The consultancy helps business and organisations to benefit from online marketing strategy and campaigns.

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