In this week's episode of Marketing Smarts, I speak with David B. Thomas, senior director of content and community for Salesforce Marketing Cloud and author of The Executive's Guide to Enterprise Social Media Strategy, on the topic of social media policies.

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Although the subject of corporate social media policies is not exactly top of mind these days, recent decisions handed down by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) suggest that companies may want to revisit their polices both to ensure they comply with the law and to help and encourage employees to participate in social media.

Three Social Media Policy Fundamentals

Most companies (68.9%) report having an explicit social media policy. I asked Dave what advice he may have for the remaining 30% of companies should they decide now to devise a policy. He had three things to say about that.

1. Make a friend of your corporate lawyer

Social media policies came to the fore in the first place, Dave explains, because "a lot of people were—and especially a lot of people in management were—really worried that social media was going to give their employees a broader platform to do stupid things."

Now, some of those stupid things may be bad for business, and others may get you into legal hot water. So Dave suggests getting with your in-house counsel as you craft your policy to make sure you are protecting the company as well as showing that you are "a professional who understands the need to do things intelligently."

2. Consider existing company policies

"A lot of the issues that people are most concerned about with social media," Dave pointed out, "are covered in the company's computer use policies or HR policies."

Since these policies tend to boil down to "Don't use your computer to do stupid, inappropriate things" and "Don't say stupid, inappropriate things," they offer both the basics of what one might find in a standard social media policy and, in the long run, may obviate the need for a standalone social media policy in the first place.

3. Be specific

Companies got into hot water with the NLRB, in many cases, because their social media policies were simply too broad—for example, prohibiting "offensive, demeaning, abusive or inappropriate remarks."

As Dave sees it, "You have to be specific with your employees about what they can and can't do." Telling people not to say bad things or telling them they should disclose that they work for a company when they're commenting on a blog post may be a good idea, but to actually work as policy such recommendations (or prohibitions) need to be explicit and even prescriptive.

A Social Media Mission Statement + Guidelines

As a model of an effective social media policy Dave recommended the following. 

First, provide a social media mission statement. The mission statement could be as simply and straightforward as "We want you to participate in social media. It's good for the company. Do it and be smart about it."

Add to this mission statement "guiding principles" such as...

  • Don't talk about customers.
  • Don't talk about pricing.
  • Don't talk about competitors.
  • Disclose who you are.
  • Don't say anything you wouldn't say in a crowded room full strangers.

Finally, having laid that out, drill down on the specific do's and don'ts and wrap things up with a description of best-practices.

"If you're going to tell people 'you need to do this, you can't do that,'' Dave said, "show them what you mean. Show five examples of bad tweets that you don't want to see. Show five examples of good tweets. Show someone an appropriate response to misinformation on a blog post or in a forum…Show somebody how you respond to a negative tweet." 

And because written policies are never adequate in and of themselves, he said, make sure you have someone in the company that people can go to when they have questions, as they inevitably will.

Doing all of the above can't guarantee that people won't make a mistake or say something on a social platform that they regret, but it will provide your company with a framework for addressing the issue; and, more important, it will provide employees with solid ideas on how to do it right.

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Dave, you may listen above 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!

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