By Dr. Magda David Hercheui

The spread of social media is going to continue in 2012. More companies are going to explore the use of social media for marketing and better communication with customers, suppliers and society in general. The same discussions of advantages and risks of social media will emerge again, as more organisations embrace these tools. In order to take the best from social media and reduce their risks, the best strategy is to have a corporate social media policy in place.

Many companies have preferred not having a policy, expecting employees to use their common sense to engage with social media in a reasonable way. However, this strategy has a flaw: social media channels are ambiguous because most people have started using them in their private lives, as a continuation of their conversation with family and friends. It means people are not necessarily clear about the differences between work and private spaces and about the consequences of their online conversations.

In addition, most people do not have journalistic experience and do not think of the consequences of published content. There is a substantial difference between emails and SMS and social media tools: the audience easily changes from a private small group of people you trust to a large collective of people that you even do not know.

Furthermore, social media tools have many different configuration standards, which may be changed by the service provider without users’ acknowledgement. Facebook, for instance, have more than once changed privacy rules without informing users, who have been surprised to learn their content was open to unknown people. Thus any organisation needs to define the rules of the game beforehand, to avoid reputation damage and to avoid being put in the uncomfortable and unfair position of disciplining employees on using a tool incorrectly when they hadn’t been advised on the correct way to begin with.

The only way of tackling this uncertain situation is to think ahead on possible problems and risks, and prepare for mitigating those risks through a clear social media policy. Each company needs to think about its own situation, employees and audience, in order to create a policy that covers the particular situation of the organisation. However, there are key points that any company can take into consideration when developing its own policy, which I’ll cover below.

1. Involve users and stakeholders

A traditional problem in the implementation of information systems in organisations is the fact that users are not involved in the discussion of technology adoption. Unfortunately, the same mistake is often made in companies which are adopting social media and designing a social media policy that is going to be adopted by users.

Companies should create a working group, with employees from different areas, who would explore together the value of using social media tools in different activities, the choice of a portfolio of channels, and make an exercise of risk assessment for using social media. Users may help each other to understand the risks and the company’s perspective on matters that otherwise could be understood as ‘private conversations between friends’.

The group members should be volunteers who are interested in using social media and about understanding how to get the best from these channels. This exercise should count with the support of a social media professional, who is able to bring broad experience on related risks and advice the company in its particular needs. In addition, the company may consult customers and other potential users to broaden its understanding of the audience’s expectations.

Even when the final social media policy is not as open as users would like, the fact that employees and contributors have been listened to and have been informed clearly on the reasons for particular choices helps to foster a broader support to the adopted policy. Members of this working group are to be champions of the new policy and help to spread the word to colleagues, in addition to bring feedback on the reception of the rules and other problems which may appear.

2. Define rules clearly

Many professionals consider that traditional rules of ethics apply online. I agree with this idea, as well as the fact that the legislation also applies to online interactions. However, unfortunately, not everybody understands these perspectives, especially when they have started using social media in their private interactions, which are more informal. Thus I would recommend companies avoid taking for granted that people are aware of the ethics and legal issues related to social media.

One does not need to spell out all the ‘rules’, but at least remind users of the ethical and legal issues involved when publishing content online. Crucial aspects such as the sorts of words which should not be used at all, and the sorts of liabilities if abuse is posted, and defamation against others, should be discussed clearly. For most people, these details will be obvious and redundant; however the company will mitigate the risks of having their reputation damaged by its own employees who ignore common sense.

In terms of rules, an important issue is about the differences between the organisation’s social media spaces, and the employee’s social media spaces. The organisation may have a Facebook fan page, for instance, meanwhile employees have their own pages. It is very easy to understand that one employee should not go to the company’s fan page to discuss his problems with his manager. However, the same straightforward reasoning may not apply when the employee is publishing content in his own Facebook page.

Does a company have the right to apply sanctions if an employee gives her most sincere opinion about its products and services in her own Facebook page? Most companies would say an employee cannot defame the organisation in any social media channel, even in his private social network pages. Other groups would argue, however, that people have the right of expressing their opinion on their private spaces. The point is thus whether social media channels may or may not be considered private spaces. Better than waiting for surprises, the organisation should advise employees clearly about the risks of expressing viewpoints in their own social media spaces or in public forums.

3. Assume content is always public

An expert in social media can use these tools with a great level of safety and privacy. In this case, it is necessary to know the tools very well, especially the configuration of privacy rules. However, it does not matter how much one knows about tools, the service providers may change configurations and user policy at any time, without advising users. And the problem is that following reputation damage, it does not matter who is responsible for the mistake. The damage is there and one needs to face it.

For this reason, the safest advice is to consider that all content published on social media channels – messages, posts, photos, videos, short messages, links etc. – are public. Because of social media, we all need to think like journalists. For the first time in history any citizen with access to the Internet may easily publish public content, but most of people have never being trained about the care one should have before making one’s ideas public. Any person is liable for the content he has published online, as if it has been published in a newspaper.

Adopting a more conservative perspective on which content is appropriate is the safer procedure. Over time, when service providers become more professional and more respectful of user’s rights, we can imagine a situation in which people would have different policies for different channels, because they could trust having the control of audiences and tools. This is not the situation now. Therefore, companies must be prudent in any social media interaction. Someone is always able to see what you have published online.

Dr. Magda David Hercheui is Senior Lecturer in Project Management at Westminster Business School, editor of New Media Knowledge, a knowledge hub specialized in digital and social media, and consultant in the area of digital and social media.

Join us on
Follow @freshbusiness