How to make sure your social media policies #FAIL


I started the social media manager job at SAS in January of 2009, and spent the first half of the year creating and communicating our social media policies (which we call our Guidelines and Recommendations, since they’re much more than just the dos and don’ts.)

In the half year or so since we launched them, I’ve seen how they’ve been both used and ignored by people at SAS. I’ll be speaking more about this at Marketing Profs Business-to-Business Forum in Boston, May 3-5.

Based on what I’ve learned, here are six things you can do if you want your social media policies to fail.

Make 'em long

People have lots of time to read, so add as much verbiage as you can. Include lots of preamble and introduction. Why use ten words where 100 will do? Be sure to use the phrase "join the conversation" a lot.

If you think your social media policy is short enough to be quickly understood and digested, hand it to a sales person. See how long it takes before her eyes glaze over and she starts to get itchy BlackBerry finger.

Keep in mind that, if you’re the person tasked with writing or compiling your company’s policy, it’s probably because you like and understand social media, and like to talk about it.

Other people don’t want to get down into the weeds. They want to know quickly what they can and can’t do. You can (and should) give them links to more information, but make sure they can get their questions answered quickly and know how to begin.

Make ‘em scary

Start off with a few examples of social media mistakes that trashed a company's reputation. Segue into stories of employees who got fired for saying the wrong thing. Finish off with some warnings about phishing scams and viruses. With any luck, by the time they're done reading them, you're employees will run screaming.

Companies need to be cautious about social media. This is the biggest change in the way business communicates since the World Wide Web, and we still don’t really know how deep the implications are. Things move very quickly, and there is the potential for mistakes that can damage your reputation. That’s one of the reasons we need social media policies.

But don’t make the mistake of frightening your employees off. Make sure your policies let your people know you want them involved. Here’s one of the first things SAS employees read when they come to the guidelines:

Social media is changing the way people and companies interact, exchange information and make decisions. It may be a phenomenon, but it’s not a fad. You’ve probably heard a lot of different information about whether or not you can participate as SAS employees. The short answer is yes.

Make ‘em complicated

It's safe to assume that your employees have figured out all the simple stuff on their own. They've probably already mastered Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and have moved on to augmented-reality browsers. Be sure to skip over the simple steps they can take to get started and get comfortable. Dive right into the necessity of tracking hashtag usage statistics for maximum ROI calculation.

Again, if you’re the kind of person who loves to figure out new social media tools and is always on the lookout for the next shiny object, it can be easy to forget that a lot of your colleagues haven’t gotten farther than a half-completed LinkedIn profile. Your policies should take all levels of interest, familiarity and comfort into account.

One of the most popular blog posts I’ve ever written was my Four-Step Plan for Getting Started in Social Media. I laid out in the simplest terms the ways people could begin to get acclimated in social media, starting with joining LinkedIn.

Keep in mind that no matter how far along you think people have gotten, there are still people out there who need the basics. Don’t overlook them.

Write ‘em in legalese

It is incumbent upon all full-time employees, part-time employees, contractors, vendors, partners and suppliers of XYZ Corporation who choose to engage in activities in social media, digital media, Web 2.0 or other digital communications to do so in a manner consistent with XYZ Corporation's human resources, computer usage, conduct and other policies, past, present or future. In perpetuity. Throughout the known universe. Have fun!

More than just trying not to be scary, make sure you’re being clear. Corporate communications bring their own set of risks and, again, you need to prepare for those. But at some point you have to trust your employees. If you attempt to make your policy cover every legal eventuality that could arise in social media and protect yourself from all risks, you’ll never end up with a workable document.

I’m lucky to have a very positive working relationship with one of our staff attorneys, who is also a member of our Marketing 2.0 Council. I understand that it’s her job to protect SAS from exposure. She understands that it’s my job to push us forward into more open styles of communication. We don’t always agree, but we’ve always been able to come to a consensus.

Write ‘em by yourself

You probably know everything you need to know to write your company's social media policies. Plus, getting input and buy-in from other people takes time and effort. Just write them by yourself. You'll be able to figure out what everybody else wants and how to give it to them.

Our Social Media Guidelines and Recommendations grew out of the work of a series of internal task forces that examined a variety of social media areas and made recommendations for what we should be doing. So when I took their suggestions and turned them into our Guidelines and Recommendations, I had a solid foundation of the work of a large and diverse group of people

Even so, I was surprised when I sent our guidelines out for review by the strong reactions I got to some things. It was tough at first to absorb some of the more critical comments, but I wasn’t writing those guidelines for me, I was writing them for all SAS employees.

We didn’t exactly crowdsource the creation of our guidelines, but we did get the input of around 20 of the most active and vocal social media proponents inside the company, as well as some of the most vocal skeptics.

In the end, getting the input from the people who would actually be using the policies made them significantly stronger and more practical. If I were starting from scratch I would crowdsource our policies from the start.

Keep ‘em to yourself

Social media is important. If people want to know what your company's social media policies are, they'll come and find them. If they can't find them easily, they'll probably just go back to what they were doing and forget about the whole thing. Problem solved!

If you work for a company with more than one employee, you know how hard it is to get a consistent message to everyone. SAS has 11,000 employees in countries all over the world. I still have people ask me, nine months after we launched our guidelines, if it’s okay to use LinkedIn at work.

Never underestimate the importance of communicating the existence of your policy in every channel you have available to you, as often as you can. Even if people know your policy exists, they may not know where to find it, or take the time to come and read it. Maybe they will after you’ve reminded them for the fourth or sixth or eighth time.

And be sure to share the success stories, and highlight the people who are doing things right. Nothing helps humanize a set of social media policies like seeing the principles brought to life by someone you know.



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  1. Dennis Van Staalduinen on

    This is fantastic. But you have to do it up as a one-page poster with only the italicized bits above and hang it in the office of every pea-brained manager who actually THINKS THAT WAY!

  2. David B. Thomas on

    Thanks, Dennis. Maybe we should make a series of posters. We could sell them both ironically and unironically. I'd be happy to take money from people who would agree with the negative examples.
    Thanks for commenting.

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