Social media has become ingrained in our daily lives. So much so that according to Hitwise, our beloved Google’s number one ranking was recently taken out by Facebook. 

Despite widespread usage, many Australian businesses have no social media guidelines. And while some have developed policies surrounding the use of social media on company time, they have been slow to develop adequate guidelines surrounding other (much more concerning) issues – what I like to call ‘the dark side’ of social media. This ‘side’ being the confidentiality, loyalty and privacy issues which are bred from these outlets which left unaddressed can incite user revolts, create multi-million dollar lawsuits and result in the discharge, or even prosecution, of employees (some famous examples include Kyle Doyle’s fake sickie and Domino’s PR disaster).

The fact of the matter is, employees are largely aware of their contractual obligations. But social media started off as just that: social. And the line between liability and freedom of speech is blurred by the various contexts in which social media are now used. Like most people these days, almost all of our staff have a Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn account, which they use both socially and professionally. 

Looking at social media from a more positive perspective (after all, social media does have its perks for business: increasing brand awareness, showcasing thought leadership and driving traffic to your website, just to name a few), by setting guidelines organisations can harness the positive energy and enthusiasm of their workforce, and capitalise on it to spread positive word of mouth. Since we embraced this fact we have encouraged our employees to develop their social networks and discuss their work online we’ve seen really positive results (although I have to admit my initial reaction was to ban social media at work too). 

While there were initially some bumps in the road (before we put guidelines into place), and I certainly won’t proclaim myself an expert on the matter, we’re well on our way.

What’s worked best:

  • Revisiting brand communications and business guidelines,

  • Allowing employees to be themselves and have an opinion, and

  • Encouraging open and honest dialogue.

Whether you’re one of the lucky few brands with cult followings and/or great organisational culture or whether you’re one of the many still working to achieve consistency in communications, setting guidelines can only serve to strengthen your marketing efforts. Furthermore, adequate guidelines can equip employees with knowledge on how to handle negative feedback (and help avoid situations like this), empowering them to take ownership of the brand and engage in advocacy. 

Neilsen’s ‘Social Media Report 2010′ recently identified that 86% of Australian internet users look to fellow users for opinions and information about products, services and brands. The reality is, with or without guidelines, people are going to talk. We spend the majority of our lives working a minimum of eight hours a day, five days a week (for many of us much more than that), so the subject is bound to come up in conversation. The difference is, a comprehensive social media policy can protect your brand when it does.

My advice? Revisit your social media policy today. If you’re not sure where to start, a good place to develop a framework from is IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines. Looking forward, benefits you can expect to achieve may very well include competitive advantages for first movers, stronger organisational culture, improved consistency in communications and greater brand equity and brand loyalty. And if no action is taken? The competition will get in first, and you could miss out on valuable market share and very well lose face.

Company policies regarding social media are nowhere near where they should be. Social media has been around for a while now, and while the number of blunders that have hit the papers the past few years have made for a good laugh at the water cooler, we need to move past them. If we are going to take social media seriously we need to take social media policy seriously too.
Your thoughts?