Tuesday, September 1, 2009

We need a social media/networking policy?!? Why, what could possibly go wrong?

Corporate Social Media Policies- Part 1

By Tom McLain

Do companies really need to develop policies to address social networking or social media? The answer to this question may be surprising – Yes. Or, in light of reports of the NFL's recent decision to implement restriction on the use of Twitter (a micro-blogging site) on game days, maybe a "yes" is not so surprising. Still, the NFL is a lot different than most businesses and the fact that it feels the need to put limits or bans in place does not necessarily mean that other companies should. The reality is that the social networking/media phenomenon may be falling below the radar screen of management of many companies for many reasons, including the informality of the media. However, there are some very real dangers that need to be considered.

At the outset, the terms "social networking" or "social media" are themselves misleading, due to the inclusion of the word "social" and due to mistaken belief that, because they occurs on a computer over the Internet, they are not a serious endeavor. For example, it is easy to dismiss social networking as just a new way to chat or gossip. However, a better way to think of social networking it is "computer-based" networking. Company executives understand the concept of networking in the traditional sense – meeting with people in face to face settings that may or may not be social for the purpose of advancing one's business. "Social networking" needs to be thought of in the same terms – its just traditional networking facilitated by computers instead of being face to face.

It is also a mistake for company executives to dismiss or underestimate the social media phenomenon as a fad or as something that is reserved to a small number of people. In August, 2009, a video was produced (for the Internet, of course) entitled "Social Media Revolution" that provided some amazing statistics:

1. By 2010 members of Generation Y will outnumber Baby Boomers;
2. The fastest growing segment on Facebook is 55-65 year-old females;
3. There are over 200,000,000 blogs and 54% of bloggers post content or "tweet" (post on Twitter) daily;
4. What happens in Vegas no longer "stays in Vegas," but shows up on YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook…

Quite simply, the raw numbers associated with social media are huge and so the question quickly becomes whether social media has any real power, reach, or impact. There is little doubt that the sheer numbers have caught the attention of sales and marketing teams. Consider the following additional statistics from "Social Media Revolution:"
1. 78% of consumers trust peer recommendations, while only 14% of consumers trust advertisements;
2. People care more about how their social group ranks products and services than how Google ranks products and services;
3. 34% of bloggers post opinions about products and brands and 25%Internet search results for the world’s top 20 largest brands are links to user-generated content.

Very quickly, two things become evident: first, the sales and marketing groups of any company will be forced to begin using social networking and social media to promote the company's products and services and, second, the sales and marketing groups of any company will be forced to begin monitoring social networking and social media to manage negative publicity about the company's products and services.

Given the informal nature of these media, there will be a stronger need to establish guidelines on how to promote products and services and how to defend them, particularly with respect to company-sponsored communications or "official" activities. Unfortunately, it’s the "unofficial" activities that can raise even higher levels of concern.

One of the aspects of social networking and media is that user profiles of the party doing the communicating typically indicate where the person works. Moreover, the communications themselves are public and may be of endless duration. So informal, unofficial communications by employees are of considerable potential concern. It is easy to imagine all manner of scenarios which could lead to embarrassment if not liability for the company. For example, suppose a public company employee is active on Twitter and well identified as a mid-level manager for the company. Suppose further than an unrelated but unscrupulous twitter user decides to use twitter as a part of a pump and dump stock scheme for that company. If our mythical company employee were to innocently pass along information from the unscrupulous Twitter user simply because he was proud of his company and that information was false, would our mythical company employee be an accomplice to the pump and dump scheme? Perhaps not, but the circumstances could prove to be highly embarrassing.

Thus, there are several points which need to be addressed in any social media policy adopted by a company. Such policies will need to address communications that are made on behalf of the company or clearly in a person's capacity as an employee. The policy may also need to address communications made in other capacities. The details of how to develop a social media/networking policy will be discussed in later blog posts, but some of the things to be weighed and considered are:

1. "Official Communications"

(a) Procedures used to approve communications?

(b) Personnel authorized to communicate?

(c) Subject matters to be communicated?

(d) Require a separate "official" account?

2. "Unofficial Communications"

(a) Require a separate "personal account?"

(b) Disclosure to company of all accounts?

(c) No references to the employee's company affiliation?

(d) Disclaimer?

(e) During office hours
(1) Time restrictions?
(2) Subject matter restrictions?
(3) Network restrictions?

(f) During personal time
(1) Subject matter restrictions?
(2) Other restrictions?

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