By Keith Patrick, Senior Lecturer at Westminster Business School

So you’ve decided your organisation is going to embrace social media. That alas is only the beginning. You have, hopefully determined your social policy strategy, but what is your social media usage policy? How are you separating your employees’ personal and professional use of social media whilst at work? Perhaps more importantly it is necessary to consider how your employees use social media when not at work!

You can specify whether social media can be used for personal purposes at work and the nature of that use. This can be seen as an extension to existing policies that have guided the use of the telephone or Internet in the workplace and during working time. But, can you specify employees’ behaviour outside of the workplace? It is questionable that you can enforce behaviour outside of the workplace but it is essential that guidance and more significantly education is provided. The latter is important, as not all acts are necessarily malicious but are simply acts of ignorance or a lack of thought for the implications. The consternation regarding sportsmen and the use of twitter is a current example.

Additionally, that employees’ also appreciate the difference in how they use social media from personal perspective as opposed to a work/professional context. They need to reflect on not only what they say, but also the language they use, and significantly what information they provide. Do you want the knowledge of R&D or M&A activities being released via an inadvertent tweet or Facebook post? Further, could comments be construed as racist or defamatory, or denigrating a product, service or colleagues? It is also necessary for organisations to appreciate that some information in some legal jurisdictions cannot be blocked or prevented from being released or discussed, e.g. salaries and terms and conditions.

Firstly, it is necessary to consider the potential for damage to the organisation’s brand and reputation. Monitoring what is being said about you, by whom, and why and what is the context is a start point. How should you respond, and how quickly? Who should provide the reply and where should the supporting information be drawn? Here is an aspect of employees responding in their own time to comments or requests, utilising both their knowledge but engaging with their passion for the product or the organisation itself. Reminding your staff that if they initiate or respond to posts that involve the organisation, they are acting in a work/employee capacity. This is regardless of whether they are at work or home; therefore they should consider what they are saying in professional/employee context.

Social media after all operates in a 24/7/365 global environment, whilst your organisation is only staffed for part of the day or week. So how are you going to respond to an online request or counter/praise a comment about your products, services, and organisation, that can arrive at anytime and from anywhere. Is it the responsibility of PR, marketing, customer services, or the IT department? Therefore it is important that when staff respond outside of work time that they are given parameters about what they can say. And that they are made aware of what information they have should be embargoed, new products, contracts, tenders, etc.

What is a realistic response time and what is your policy in general with regard to letters or e-mails. Is this posted on the website in your service conditions, could this be extended into your social media operation? It is also worth considering whether all the facts are known; an incorrect or incomplete response can be adding fuel not dowsing flames. Following on from this is there a process for escalating a response request to a manager or ‘expert’ or simply alerting a more suitable respondent, equally outside of working hours? These are all points that organisations must consider.

Dependent on the nature of your organisation and its products or service your employees can equally be your customers and so could be potential advocates. Consider how the Halifax uses its employees for its adverts to create authenticity. Further, if your employees use social media in their own time their personal networks are equally an opportunity. Remember the core of social media and social networks is that if each of our friends has ten friends consider the exponential reach and opportunity therein.

It is also wise to consider how engaged your employees are and what you do to engage them. Do you know their passion for your organisation or its products? The level of their knowledge, their personal or tacit knowledge, their potential as advocates, can create an additional sales force! Social media can bridge remote and distributed offices, linking employees, customers and suppliers.

Ensure that employees are made aware that they are responsible for what they write, that their actions have consequences. Ensure they exercise good judgement and don’t fuel a fire. They need to be seen as authentic. They are acting as their organisation’s voice and they are adding value by responding and dealing with the issue. They are identifiable by providing a real name, and if relevant their role or position. Not insignificantly, organisations need to ensure that the employees' contribution via social media is not detracting from their dally tasks or core activities.

Key Considerations:

Potential for damage to brand and reputation
Context of contributions, in work time, in a work situation
Immediacy of reply
Engaging employees passion
Employees as customers
The value of an employees network

Finally, your social media policy may be good, or otherwise, but it shouldn’t be seen as a set of rules. Social media is evolving too fast and in unknown directions. A social media policy should be about guiding and educating users into adopting good practices and demonstrating responsibility and judgement.