A few years ago, everyone seemed to be talking about the need for companies to develop and implement social media policies. Nowadays, the topic seems to provoke little more than yawns. What happened?
A recent New York Times article got me thinking about this. It described a series of cases in which the National Labor Relations Board found that some companies had gone too far in prohibiting their employees from discussing their work in social media. As the NLRB sees it, because workers have the right to form unions, they also have the right to discuss work conditions and related matters as part of organizing efforts. Companies with blanket policies proscribing such conversations are, apparently, in the wrong.
Because I had once seen David B. Thomas discussing social media policies at a MarketingProfs event (our 2009 Digital Marketing Mixer in Chicago), I asked him about the changed landscape of social media policy-making on the most recent episode of Marketing Smarts. Specifically, I wanted to know why people didn't seem to talk about this stuff anymore.
His take was simple: People were afraid that employees were going to run amok on social media, badmouth the company and its clients, reveal trade secrets, and mess up everything. But, as it turned out, "We were wrong."
We were wrong because, generally speaking, employees can be trusted to do the right thing on and off of social media. If you can't trust them, a social media policy isn't really going to help.
"We're talking about people, salespeople, marketing people, HR people, who you might send to a conference to meet with people," Dave told me. "And if you don't trust them to talk one on one with a customer or a prospect or a member of your community, then that's not a social media problem, that's a management problem."
Everybody Makes Mistakes
Dave also pointed out that most of the social media blunders that we've witnessed over the last year or so boil down to one thing: People make mistakes.
"We used to have this idea of companies being this gray, corporate edifice," he said, "that only spoke through press releases and it was easy to say, 'Big Company! How dare you do this?' But what all these things come down to is—no, it's one person inside the company who accidentally made a mistake."
Whereas some such mistakes may have been preventable via policy—for example, "If you are logged into the corporate Twitter account, you may not be logged in to any other social media accounts"—in most cases they could not. But as long as the person was adequately contrite and the company promptly acknowledged and apologized for the mistake, as it turns out, things tend to blow over relatively quickly.
"Social media has shown us that companies are made up of individuals," Dave added, and people tend to be more forgiving towards individuals when they make mistakes, than they are towards faceless, gray edifices.
We've Already Got One
Which is not to say that you don't need a social media policy. In fact, as it turns out, some 68.9% of companies already have one.
The key to any such policy, according to Dave, is that "you have to be specific with your employees about what they can and can't do."
To that end, a policy can't just be a list of prohibitions. Instead, it should provide guiding principles for using social media, specific do's and don'ts, and examples of best practices.
In addition, he adds, you need "someone in the company they can go to when they have questions."
Because people will have questions, they will need encouragement to use social media and they will make mistakes.
If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Dave, you may listen here or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. You can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!