Setting social networking rules

- Alma Buelva -

MANILA, Philippines - When Carmen Mislang complained on Twitter that there were no handsome men in Vietnam, and that the wine served over dinner sucked, she sounded just like any of the millions of Internet users who regularly post petulant comments on any number of online social networks. But because she was a speechwriter accompanying President Aquino on a state visit to Vietnam last October, her casual remarks caused quite a stir in Manila, where critics lambasted her for undiplomatic behavior.

The incident highlights the need for all organizations  from private corporations to public agencies  to establish and enforce guidelines on the use of social media. The need becomes even more pressing as organizations and their employees jump onto the social networking bandwagon, creating Facebook pages and adding Twitter accounts.

In clear and unambiguous terms, the guidelines ought to spell out for employees what is acceptable and what is not, when representing the company in social networks.

Nikki Katz, managing editor for BlogWorld, suggests a number of things to consider when setting up a social media policy.

Identify the purpose of the social media accounts. Will you be promoting products? Engaging with your customers? Obtaining feedback?

Establish the tone of all accounts. Are you going for a professional or conversational tone? Set guidelines for what is appropriate as opposed to what will embarrass the company.

Include everyone. Especially in larger organizations, include all departments in the guidelines and conversation.

Establish company accounts versus personal accounts. Determine if you want your employees to create a new account specific to the company. This will help draw the line between tweeting about beer runs and a company luncheon. Another suggestion is to have your employees tag their tweets with the company name if they are talking business.

Keep it confidential. Reiterate your confidentiality clause  it should stand true for social media as well.

Define ownership. Define up front who owns what accounts and what happens if an employee is let go or leaves the company.

Establish a responsibility list. Sometimes employees will receive complaints, questions or concerns in their personal accounts, once they establish where they work. Put together a quick list of answers or accounts for them to direct the consumer in a timely fashion.

Revisit and revise. Social media continues to evolve and change. Your social media policy should as well. Set dates to revisit and revise your document for redistribution.

A number of large corporations, including IBM, Intel, HP, Microsoft, Dell, Ford and GM, post their guidelines online. The Social Media Governance website (socialmediacgovernance.com) has a database of 160 of these guidelines. Any of these can be a good starting point and a source of ideas for companies that are only now beginning to set up their own social media policies.

IBM, a company that encouraged its employees early on to get on the Internet, has only 12 items on its Social Computing Guidelines:

1. Know and follow IBM’s Business Conduct Guidelines.

2. IBMers are personally responsible for the content they publish online, whether in a blog, social computing site or any other form of user-generated media. Be mindful that what you publish will be public for a long time  protect your privacy and take care to understand a site’s terms of service.

3. Identify yourself  name and, when relevant, role at IBM  when you discuss IBM or IBM-related matters, such as IBM products or services. You must make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of IBM.

4. If you publish content online relevant to IBM in your personal capacity, use a disclaimer such as this: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.”

5. Respect copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.

6. Don’t provide IBM’s or another’s confidential or other proprietary information and never discuss IBM business performance or other sensitive matters publicly.

7. Don’t cite or reference clients, partners or suppliers without their approval. When you do make a reference, link back to the source. Don’t publish anything that might allow inferences to be drawn which could embarrass or damage a client.

8. Respect your audience. Don’t use ethnic slurs, personal insults, obscenity, or engage in any conduct that would not be acceptable in IBM’s workplace. You should also show proper consideration for others’ privacy and for topics that may be considered objectionable or inflammatory  such as politics and religion.

9. Be aware of your association with IBM in online social networks. If you identify yourself as an IBMer, ensure your profile and related content is consistent with how you wish to present yourself with colleagues and clients.

10. Don’t pick fights, be the first to correct your own mistakes.

11. Try to add value. Provide worthwhile information and perspective. IBM’s brand is best represented by its people and what you publish may reflect on IBM’s brand.

12. Don’t use use IBM logos or trademarks unless approved to do so.

Of course, if you are in a real hurry, you can visit the website of Switch Communications (www.shiftcomm.com), a public relations company that specializes in social media networks, and download the PDF form Top 10 Guidelines for Social Media Participation and plug in your company name where it says (COMPANY).

7Cs of social media

So why are more and more companies turning to social media networks?

Jonathan Richman, in his health industry-oriented Dose of Digital site, cites seven Cs: Communicating, Cause Support/Sponsorship, Contests, Consumer Research, Connecting Others; Customer Service; and Community Building.

Most markets that use social media to communicate are using it as another channel to get news out about their companies, Richman says.

Other companies use social media to champion a cause that is associated with their organizations. For example, the giant pharmaceutical company Merck set up an unbranded page called Take a Step Against Cervical Cancer as it was promoting its own Gardasil product.

Contests on social media networks are a highly participatory way to drum up brand awareness, Richman adds.

At the same time, networks enable companies to do a great amount of consumer research. His advice: “If you are monitoring and not planning on responding, that’s fine, but be sure to use the information you find while monitoring. Essentially, you have a giant market research study going on. You can see what people think about your brand and how they talk about and treat the conditions in which you’re most interested.”

Customer service, of course, is another common use of social media.

“Twitter seems to be a popular place for customer service since it also happens to be a place where people tend to complain and need customer service,” Richman says. “Companies like Comcast and Best Buy have each gotten both great press and good results from the customer service they’re providing via Twitter.”

Finally, social networks also lend themselves to connecting people and community building, activities that companies can leverage to increase awareness of a problem or promote their brand.

Of course, as we have seen all too often, social media can also bring trouble.

EMarketer notes that negative comments and false statements about brands can spread fast.

“Because consumers have the ability to create, publish and distribute their own content  as well as comment, debate, recommend and share their opinions  marketers and their brands are more vulnerable than ever. For instance, brands can be damaged by people who use Twitter to post false information. And they can just as easily be affected for the worse by employees who post prank videos on YouTube,” eMarketer says.

“Listen up: Failing to appropriately research a social media strategy and establish relevant best practices can cost your company dearly,” it concludes.

It’s a lesson that the Aquino administration has taken to heart. In the wake of the Mislang misfire, the Aquino administration, which prided itself on the use of social media networks, suspended the use of all such accounts until guidelines for their use are drawn up.

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