Does Your Organization Need a Social Media Policy?

social media policyWe’ve all heard social media horror stories. The person who embarrassed themselves and their employer by posting inappropriate pictures online. The person who undermined their organization by tweeting their unhappiness with their boss or a decision at work. The person who posted something about a client or coworker which they never intended that person to see.

These events are rare, but they do happen.

The result? Employers are afraid.

How do people respond when they’re afraid? Often they attempt to control.

So, businesses, non-profits, schools, and churches all over the world have established social media policies. These policies are rules which their employees are required to follow online.

Overreaching social media policies

In the worst cases, social media policies can be overreaching and intrusive.

  • One example is that of the Kentucky Conference of the United Methodist Church. They require clergy to “agree to allow the Kentucky Annual Conference to examine any and all MySpace, Facebook, or other blog and website accounts that I may have.”
  • Carnival Cruise Lines implemented a social media policy which prohibits partners from sharing Carnival pictures or videos without the company’s written permission. (Huh? Isn’t that the whole point of social media?)
  • Here in Florida, a county teachers union is suing because it claims the county’s 9 page social media policy for teachers is oppressive.
  • And finally, the most restrictive policy of all… Rev. Cedric Miller of Living Word Christian Fellowship Church in Neptune, NJ completely banned all married church leaders from using Facebook claiming it led to too many affairs… A few weeks later, he resigned for inappropriate sexual behavior.

Unnecessary social media policies

Assuming your organization is not looking to do anything crazy like the examples above, most of the things covered in a typical social media policy are probably policies your organization already has in place. Here are some elements of a sample social media policy which can be found on about.com:

  • Confidential information. Do we really need a social media policy to tell employees not to share confidential information? Almost every employee contract already include a confidentiality clause that applies to all communication including social media.
  • “Speak respectfully about the company and our current and potential employees, customers, partners, and competitors. Do not engage in name calling or behavior that will reflect negatively on your company’s reputation.” Again, do we really need a separate social media policy for this? We expect staff to speak respectfully at all times, not just in social media.
  • “You may not sell any product or service that would compete with any of your company’s products or services without permission in writing from the president.” Again, you probably have a policy somewhere else on this that applies to more than just blogging and social media.

Social Media Policy Principles

I am not 100% opposed to social media policies, but I think if an organization creates a social media policy it should do so with these three principles in mind.

  1. Trust your staff. You already entrusted the entire future of your organization to your staff when you hired them. Trust them to use social media appropriately.
  2. Bureaucracy sucks. Nobody likes rules. Nobody reads long policies. Don’t repeat things that are already in other policies. If you’re going to have a social media policy, keep it really short – less than a page.
  3. Encourage social media use. Your staff should be your organization’s biggest fans. And they may have the power to reach even more people through their personal social media connections than your organization does through its official social media channels. Be a catalyst not a barrier to their social media use.

Social Media Guidelines

With those principles in mind, maybe the best social media policy would be an index card saying:

We encourage our staff to use social media well, because we believe as your influence grows, our influence grows. Be smart. Remember people will see everything you post. And it’s recorded – forever! Your reputation at stake and so is ours. Feel free to use social media while at work, but be on guard because it can be big time suck. You’ve got an important job, and we’re counting on you to do your best at it.

I never had a policy; I have just tried to do my very best each and every day. -Abraham Lincoln

What do you think?  Is your organization ready to support it’s staff’s use of social media and trust them to use common sense?  Or do you feel like explicit guidelines and policies are necessary?

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Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, elder of CypressMeadows.org, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck and add him to your circles at Google+ as +Paul Steinbrueck.

10 Responses to “Does Your Organization Need a Social Media Policy?”

  1. Paul, I think you're spot on, here! As I stated during the Church Social Media (#chsocm) chat, we need to have a basic accountability for our actions, not an explicit statement for every situation. If you trust your youth leader to act appropriately with your youth, that should extend to all their actions and situations.

    Organizations will encourage the use of social media just as much as they discourage meetings. Policies and meetings are a way to defer decisions and interrupt progress. Instead of roadmaps (policies), we should be teaching principles (give them a compass). A quick search, however, points most people in the other direction.

    • PaulSteinbrueck Sep 5, 2011 at 10:33 am

      Thanks Steve. I'm with you. But as you pointed out it seems like social media policies are becoming so prevalent – especially in big, well know (bureaucratic) organizations – that people just assume every organization needs one.

  2. Looking forward to focusing on this during our next #chsocm chat on, God willing, 9/13. I plan to post a link to this and, for contrast, something from the healthcare industry which faces many of the same issues. PBWY

    • PaulSteinbrueck Sep 12, 2011 at 6:25 pm

      Thanks Meredith! I look forward to the chat and to discussing social media policies with people in different industries and with different perspectives.

  3. The truth is that organizations need these policies because of the litigious nature of our society. If a company or organization has a clear policy they can go a long way toward indemnifying themselves against a lawsuit and/or can more easily remove an employee from their position.

    In your example above you mention that it isn't necessary to repeat the policy of not sharing confidential information. And while that make good common sense…from a legal standpoint a good lawyer would be able to get around that loophole.

    Having it explained specifically as it relates to social media is just protection. Remember, policies and procedures are written to protect employers NOT employees. That is why they are long, fully developed, redundant, and above all BORING!

    • PaulSteinbrueck Nov 29, 2011 at 10:04 pm

      Austin, I don't think that's a loophole. Can you provide an example of a person who violated the confidentiality clause of their employee contract through social media and were able to get away with it because it wasn't specifically restated in a social media policy?

      Personally, I think lawyers would have a much easier time getting clients off for violating very long and detailed policies because they are so long and detailed that nobody is able to read and understand them.

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