Wednesday, February 18, 2009

6 wild-west rules for social media policy

I'm speaking today at the Capital Communicators Group lunch on "Taming the Wild, Wild West: Crafting a Social Media Policy," and this post will serve as the e-handout for the group. (Today's session is sold out, but I'll be organizing a repeat session as an independent lunch-and-learn; email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.) And if you take the view that social media represents the wild, wild West for business communications, I'd suggest you imagine the soundtrack as "Home on the Range," where "never is heard a discouraging word," rather than the theme from "Rawhide" -- in other words, think free-range rather than trying to use your social-media policy to lasso, corral and brand everything that's moving.

When people use the "wild west" analogy, it conjures up images of lawless, roaming bandits, but I'd remind you that those were greatly outnumbered by ordinary settlers (and already-resident Native Americans) looking to live and let live. So when you saddle up to set a social media policy, take these six wild-west rules into consideration:
  1. Don't legislate from back East: If you've never created a social-media profile, nor commented on a blog, don't attempt to craft a social media policy until you're more familiar with the territory. Make sure you've experimented with the platforms you intend to use for business, and learn the local norms. Read other organizations' social media policies -- you can find several good examples of policies here. Social media sites are community-regulated, and attempting to control them like colonies won't work in these new territories.
  2. Say "howdy, stranger:" Do create policies that encourage participation by your employees and by the community you're trying to reach. If you restrict usage, you won't gain the advantages of the social part of social media. (Far from banning its use in the workplace, many of my clients are encouraging their employees to use it as a collaboration tool, creating secret Facebook groups and other tools to help that process stay private.) Make it easy to comment, share or rate your content.
  3. Tell the sheriff what you're doing in these parts. Rather than start your policy with what you won't do, start with your reasons for participating--and let the community (the real sheriff in these parts) know those reasons. What's your goal? What are you here to do? What are you hoping others will do with what you're putting out there? How will you handle their comments? Tell them how you'll approach your communications here--for example, if your CEO promises to write his own blog posts, say so. (And stick to your word.)
  4. Use a barn-raising approach to building your policy. We call this "crowdsourcing" in the social media wild west, and you'll have a more realistic policy if you include your employees and customers in its creation (something Facebook learned in less than 24 hours this week when it tried to change its Terms of Service without warning its users and seeking their input).
  5. Don't rewrite the laws of the land. Many companies find they already have all the policies in place that might be needed when considering social media use, and if you have good existing policies on how your company deals with proprietary information, regulatory disclosures, copyright and related matters, you may need only to say "All the existing policies apply." At the same time, remember existing laws protect free speech, and understand you can't control everything. Many social media sites themselves note in writing that they can't and don't control the content on their sites, and you may need to get comfortable with that.
  6. Don't sit on that cactus. In some high-profile cases, employees have done stupid things on social media sites. Again, no amount of rope is going to keep some folks from hanging themselves, but you may want to use your policy to urge the use of common sense--and set some norms for how you want your customers, members or other key audiences treated. (If you already have these policies in place, congratulations and see number 5.) Want to be sure? Hold some orientation and training sessions for your employees to be sure they understand the policies.
I've helped lots of clients work through social media policy issues; email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.

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