Twitter policies story at Ragan.com

I had a story regarding Twitter, and social media policies at work in general, published at Ragan.com. The text is cross-posted here.

Published: 8/6/2009

Policing tweets poses a quandary for employers
By Ari B. Adler

As the Twitter population grows, so does the chance for damage. So where does a company draw the line?

As everyone from interns to elected officials in the United Kingdom struggle to get a grip on the “right” way to tweet on Twitter, many organizations are trying to figure out how to get a handle on the micro-blogging phenomenon.

Considering the growth of Twitter — some estimates put it well over 1,300 percent this year —many organizations are realizing that their always-on, instant-gratification constituencies demand that they evolve.

As they do so, though, it’s going to be even more important for those organizations to establish guidelines for employees to follow. It’s common to receive an employee handbook on your first day in the office. Inside is a tremendous amount of information, often including company policies regarding the use of such things as telephones. What is unusual, unfortunately, is to find guidelines regarding an employee’s involvement in social media.

What your employees are saying — often while using employer-owned equipment — could have ramifications no one has even considered yet. A woman in Chicago who made a remark on Twitter about her “moldy apartment” that her landlord thinks is “okay” was slapped with a $50,000 defamation lawsuit. If she had been tweeting from a company-owned cell phone, would her employer have been named in the suit?

Given that the outside chance of a lawsuit like that is still slim, there are plenty of other reasons to consider having a social media policy. According to the Deloitte 2009 Ethics and Workplace Survey:

  • 74 percent of employees said it’s easy to damage a company’s reputation on social media.
  • 51 percent of employees said a company policy would change how they behave on line.
  • 24 percent of employees said they didn’t know whether their company has a social media policy.
  • 11 percent of employees said they know their company has a policy but they don’t know what it says.

What your employees say and do online — particularly if they are associating themselves publicly with your corporate or organizational brand — can have a huge impact on public perception. That’s why having a social media policy that is clear, simple and easy to reference is vital.

ESPN took a hit recently when word got out that it was clamping down on its employees doing personal tweeting. In reality, it’s not as bad as it sounded — and they responded to the critics via Twitter, which says a lot.

One thing ESPN does well in its policy is to remind employees that what you say and do online matters to your employer if you are doing so as a representative of that employer. That’s why, ESPN says, “We expect to hold all talent who participate in social networking to the same standards we hold for interaction with our audiences across TV, radio and our digital platforms.”

The British government is halfway there, in that is encouraging its employees to tweet. What’s preventing its policy from being useful and effective is its size. At 20 pages, the Twitter guidebook issued by the Brits is a testament to government trying to do something right and strangling it with red tape.

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has done a better job with its policy, which spans seven pages but is indexed online and is open to comment and revision.

As a possible template, the HHS guidelines provide a handy roadmap. You’ll want to consider what questions your employees may have and address those accordingly.

For example, you’ll need to talk about when to use Twitter and when not to use Twitter. You’ll need to discuss how employees should be handling themselves in terms of what content they can post. And you’ll need to talk about how employees should handle inquiries from the outside world — including those from customers, vendors and the media.

Educating employees about Twitter’s demographics and terms of service are important as well, but they don’t need to be part of an organization’s social media policy. That’s one of the failings of the HHS guidelines.

Of course, bureaucracy also still reigns supreme throughout the HHS document. How else do you explain: “Overall Twitter strategy should be approved through the same process by which Web site content is currently approved for that Agency. The approval process for each individual tweet is up to the discretion of Agency management.”

The bottom line is that a good policy is necessary for any organization, whether it’s involved in social media or not. If the leap onto the crazy train called Twitter is going to be made, however, be careful not to drown the micro-blogging outreach in pages of guidelines and approval processes.

SHIFT Communications has even taken the guesswork out of it for you by posting a social media policy template. As Todd Defren (@tdefren on Twitter) wrote when he posted the template, “It represents one of the best examples I’ve seen, and offers the added benefit of having been vetted by top corporate lawyers.” Best of all, it’s free of charge and copyright issues, which ought to take care of the first two questions from your legal team.

Ari B. Adler is a professional communicator with experience as a newspaper reporter and editor, as well as a government and corporate spokesperson. He is the communications administrator for Delta Dental of Michigan and an adjunct instructor at Michigan State University and University of Michigan-Dearborn. You can follow him on Twitter at @aribadler.

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5 comments on “Twitter policies story at Ragan.com

  1. Thanks for the hat-tip. FWIW I can now reveal that our Social Media Policy template was written in collaboration with Club Med – a big brand, with well-trained lawyers! 😉

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