We read about social media slip-ups that impact businesses all the time. An executive inadvertently posts a tweet with confidential information, employees offer-up opinions on controversial subjects and find themselves in hot water, and social media departments inadvertently publish offensive images. Often, the lack of a social media policy is to blame.
On July 4, 2014, American Apparel posted an image on its Tumblr account that someone thought was fireworks but was in reality a stylized image of the space shuttle Challenger explosion from 1986. It was a huge and offensive embarrassment. Aside from a better senses of history, how do you protect your business from social media mishaps? A solid social media policy is a good start, so here are the main elements of a social media policy.
Offline rules apply to online activities. Most companies have an employment agreement or handbook which offers guidance on employee conduct. A social media policy should include a reminder that the guidelines in the employee handbook apply not only to traditional offline activities but online conduct as well.
Define social media. A social media policy should clearly state what types of communications are included in the guidelines. Companies should expect employees to follow the guidelines in nearly all online public means of communicating.
Reinforce commitment to confidentiality. Companies and their clients have an expectation of confidentiality, and this should be reinforced in social media policies. For example, employees should not discuss financial information, sales trends, business strategies, company forecasts, legal issues or future promotional activities.
Promote disclosure. Disclosure represents a critical yet confusing aspect of a social media policy as guidance may differ from company to company and even from employee to employee. A good rule of thumb is that an employee should be the first to identify their employer - and not wait to be asked during an interaction on social media.
Offer disclaimers. While a disclaimer on a social media profile does not absolve the author from responsibility, it is a good practice to post that opinions expressed on the site are yours and not those of your employer. For example: "The views expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of (employer)."
Don't make it look official. Employees may be proud that they work for a company or organization, but including a logo on a social media profile suggests that it is an official page.
Respect copyright, privacy, fair use and other laws. All employees should be aware of copyright, privacy and fair use laws, particularly when publishing on behalf of a company.
Don't act as a spokesperson. In some cases, employees may feel the need to respond to statements made online about their employers or the products they sell. Best advice: Don't. A social media policy should direct the employee to an official spokesperson for the company.
Make sure you have permission to post on company pages. Just as a company spokesperson should address comments and concerns on social media sites, only approved employees should be posting information to a company social media page.
Employers reserve right to avoid subjects and may ask you to take stuff down. All companies respect an employee's right to free speech, and few have time to monitor all of the online interactions of their workers. However, some companies may ask that employees steer clear of particular subjects which may be controversial or inflammatory. Employees should be aware that it may be within their employer's rights to ask an employee to take a post down.
Know when to get help. With social media participation comes mistakes. Without them, I wouldn't be an author. A social media policy should give clear guidance on what an employee should do if they make a mistake.
Use common sense and good judgment. The easiest way to stay out of trouble online is to exercise common sense and good judgment. Employees need to understand that they are responsible for their actions, and anything they post has the potential to tarnish the image of their employer. Workers need to think before they post and think about the reactions others may have - before information is posted. Have respect for the audience on social media and avoid negative personal comments or inflammatory subjects.
A social media policy can help prevent a costly online slip-up, so I recommend every company create one and regularly reiterate the messages to employees. More information and a sample social media policy are available in my book How to Protect (Or Destroy) Your Reputation Online.
Originally published on DavidPR.com.