Having a social media policy is no longer optional

January 19, 2011


Image from bloggingforjobs.com

Do you have a social media policy for your organization? Are you interested in discussing the topic further? #prstudchat will be talking social media policies on Twitter tonight (Jan. 19) from 8:30 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. EST.

When is honesty not the best policy? How about when it costs you your job.

Enter Glen Busch, the former director of the Chicago chapter of Coats for Kids, who was fired earlier this week for comments he made on his personal Facebook page about the deadly Arizona shootings involving Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford.

IMO, the comments weren’t even that bad. Here’s a sampling:

  • ” This was not a political thing, it was a psychotic thing. This kid was nuts! Now lets drop the ink wars and pray for the families. Maybe apologize in public just like your accusations as well? I’m just saying.”
  • “Now that we know that this kid was an extreme socialist and democrat, does that change some of the opinions? Guys look, this is not political, he’s just crazy. I do not hold liberals responsible for this now that the facts are known.”

Apparently, Busch’s boss disagreed. He issued a statement to Busch stressing how important it was for nonprofits to avoid controversy. And that it was impossible for Busch not to be associated with his employer — in this case, Coats for Kids. Busch’s response: “We don’t even have a policy.”

There is a lesson to be learned on both sides here, but let’s start from the organization’s side:

Lesson 1: You MUST have a social media policy these days

There is no clear line when it comes to social media. What one person thinks is acceptable to share, another employee finds fault in. Just like kids, people need rules. And in this case, we also need education. If you want to influence how your employees talk about your company or outside issues regarding social media, create some guidelines and communicate the policy. If you don’t, your organization will without a doubt encounter a Glen Busch or placenta picture situation sooner or later.

Also, understand that as a country, we are still trying to figure out these issues from a legal perspective. So there isn’t really much of  a precedent. In fact, one of the most recent rulings on this topic was in favor of the aforementioned nursing student — Doyle Byrnes — who posed for a picture with a placenta and posted it on Facebook. The student was dismissed from the nursing program by the college for posting the picture, but was recently reinstated. The judge’s rationale according to The Kansas City Star:

  • Photos are taken to be viewed, and if the students were given permission to photograph the placenta, it became irrelevant what they did with the pictures.
  • There was no violation of any patient’s privacy because there was nothing in the photos to identify whose placenta it was.
  • Byrnes was not allowed a fair hearing on her dismissal.

You’ve probably seen this resource of social media policies. And it’s a good place to start. But just creating a policy isn’t enough. No one is going to get up early and rush to school or work to study the social media policy. And there won’t be any policy parties. Education and real-life examples are key to understanding the issues. Imagine if Glen had gone through a training course that stressed how important it was for Coats For Kids employees not to discuss politics online. Also, make sure to explain how employees/students can use social media to benefit your organization. Because they are going to use social media.

Lesson 2: You ALWAYS represent organizations with which you are affiliated, online or offline

Not sure that Glen’s comments are the best example here because I still don’t see how they are that inflammatory. But the argument that they were posted on his personal Facebook page — which I think WGN made, not Glen — is not a good one. And the same can be said for Doyle posting the placenta picture. If you post it online anywhere, it can always be traced back to you and can always be seen by anyone, including your employer. It does not mater what privacy settings you have. People cut and paste into e-mails all the time.

There is no such thing as a separate personal and professional life online. It doesn’t exist. One of the most common comparisons I hear is that you shouldn’t post anything on social media that you don’t want to appear in the newspaper the next day. Everyone shakes their heads at the person who posted something suspect and then nods their heads at the newspaper analogy. But at the end of the day, these placenta and political situations keep popping up everywhere. It’s like people don’t think it will happen to them and when it does, it’s too late. You can’t erase the Internet. Just ask Al Gore.

The advice here is simple, but needs to be stated. If you aren’t sure if it’s ok to post something, ask. Doyle actually did just that and it was one of the reasons she was reinstated into the nursing program. Don’t be naive. Anything you’ve shared via social media could be shared with your boss or teachers at some point. So no matter if your job/school has a social media policy, set your own rules for yourself and don’t end up in the news as an example.

I think Glen got screwed. But I think Doyle got lucky. At a past job, we had an employee who was trying to help a customer and posted proprietary information to answer a question. There was a social media policy and that person was fired. But am I sure we did the best job on employee education. No, I really can’t say that.

The bottom line is that for organizations, a social media policy is not optional anymore. Because social media is not optional. And a lack of a policy at this point is irresponsible. Almost as irresponsible as you putting your job on the line to post some picture your friends might “like.”

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JonHearty 133 pts

"Education and real-life examples are key to understanding the issues."

A very interesting point. Being that social media is new to everyone, these types of precedents will be set often and it is important to be educated on what is happening. Ignorance can have a high cost associated with it, as seen in the case of Glen Busch. Thanks for sharing this post; it is definitely motivation to do some research!

JGoldsborough 247 pts

JonHearty Research always helps. And stories beat corporate speak and policy language anyday. Because people talk to each other in stories, not key mesages :).

JackieAdkins 6 pts

This is one of those issues that, the longer an organization avoids addressing it, the more and more out of control it could potentially get. As employees get more and more comfortable having their leash loosened a bit with social media, they start to think that there's not much they can't get away with (not so much that they are being rebellious, more that they forget there is a leash attached to them in the first place). Unfortunately, their only reminder is often when they're jerked backwards from the leash tightening and disciplined or, as in this case, fired.

Okay, analogy over :)

Although I believe a concise set of social media guidelines is important so that your employees don't have to read through pages and pages of legalese, I think that many companies could benefit from elaborating on their guidelines to address some of the gray areas. Maybe begin the policy with some bullet points that summarize every point, and then go into a more detailed explanation, providing examples. That way, if there ever is a question, the employee isn't left reading 2 sentences over and over again trying to determine where their actions would fall.

Ultimately, I guess this falls in line with the education point that you made, ensuring everyone who is supposed to follow the guidelines actually follows them.

Jackie Adkins

JGoldsborough 247 pts

JackieAdkins I think your "forget there is a leash attached to them" analogy is right on target. People get too comfortable when there are no rules. It's a fine line. You want employees to feel comfortable. They are your org's first line of reputation and can do a lot of good for your brand via social media. But if they get too comfortable and aren't reminded of the rules, they may get into trouble by doing something they didn't think would get them into trouble. Case in point...Glen Busch.

One of the things I've advocated for but never been able to get much buy in on is teaching social media through social media. Employees are like our customers. They are going to have questions as they come up and will be looking for answers at those times. A company that can provide a real-time outlet to discuss scenarios is going to have employees that understand the rules.

JackieAdkins 6 pts

JGoldsborough Hmm, definitely an interesting way to approach it. I like it. I guess the only drawback I'd see is that most people would want to ask questions like these in a private setting, but I guess you could find ways around that pretty easily. And, it helps teach them more than having them call a telephone number.

I like it.

cubanalaf 14 pts

This might surprise you, but I'm going to take the organization's side on this one.

Working for a non-profit or association is usually a non-partisan position, unless specifically affiliated. With that being said, most go through extensive training covering the mission statement and values of an organization. Association executives understand that they represent not only themselves, but membership as well. Taking any type of political stance is frowned upon in the space, especially when members/family/friends/your boss can see it. Members look to you to have a stance that they can agree with, and its really easy to turn members off/lose retention.

Was it a bit harsh? Possibly. But, at the end of the day, it's about the members and how they view things. It's quite possible this organization has strict policies on communication.


JGoldsborough 247 pts

cubanalaf Hmm, interesting POV. Might have changed my opinion slightly if the Coats for Kids exec had said he'd heard from members who were upset about the comments. But he didn't. And it comes off as -- we are talking PR here ;) -- a high-level leader at an org making a gut reaction based solely off his personal opinion and that of the Legal team.

Funny thing is that one of the ways I would pitch vaue of a social media policy to this exec is that it would give him more concrete grounds to point too, punish when something like this happens in the future. As a communicator, I'd make sure to include the "employees can do good with social media angle" too. And eventually, I'd share it with him. But not at the start.

sjogborn 5 pts

Really well-thought out post here, Justin. I agree with your statement : "The advice here is simple, but needs to be stated. If you arenu00e2u0080u0099t sure if itu00e2u0080u0099s ok to post something, ask.".

Hasn't everyone been in the situation where the teeter on the edge of posting something because there's that nagging feeling that it's maybe not appropriate? I know I've been there. Even if I said that "views are my own" on Twitter they can still be misinterpreted due to just sheer ignorance.

I also agree with emjaydoesPR that it's better to be explici when it comes to social media policy.

I still go back between the personal and professional line. I like to keep that separation at times because I blog on my own and want to maintain that personal entity - but at the same time I think the lines are blurred for the most part, and regardless of how I want to be perceived, people are still going to make that association.

Great post, as always. My thoughts are a little scatter-brained in this comment. :)

emjaydoesPR 5 pts

sjogborn If it gives you pause... pause. ;)

Even though your views are your own that doesn't offer much security for your organization.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

sjogborn Thanks for stopping by, Sam. I think everyone has been there. And the "thoughts expressed are my own" disclaimer helps. But what helps more is confirmation if you question a post. And even more than that...a policy that tells you what's ok and what isn't.

I get the desire to separate personal and professional. I just don't think it's possible in the online world with how social media has been integrated into our lives. If positioned correctly, personal use of social can reflect well on the individual, employer and not break any rules all at the same time :).

sjogborn 5 pts

JGoldsborough So what are your thoughts on Facebook then, since it's not necessarily public? Are any mediums of social media an exception? Just playing devil's advocate, of course. :)

sjogborn 5 pts

JGoldsborough Let me elaborate: I understand the man used as an example in your post got fired from his job. To me that seems like an extreme instance, while it did still actually happen.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

sjogborn I don't know that it is that extreme. As I noted in my post, I know others who have been fired from their jobs for what they shared via social media. The fact of the matter is that once you put something in writing, it can be shared. There are ways to make it less likely that will happen, but it can still happen. Especially with Facebook, where so many people don't really understand privacy controls.

Having a social media policy actually makes it easier for companies to reprimand employees for what they post, right? But it also makes it less likely employees will break the rules. We've all had rules of some sort since we were born. We're used to them.

sjogborn 5 pts

JGoldsborough Awesome points, especially with the Facebook privacy controls. Even when it's not in writing - 75% of my friends still haven't manually changed their profile picture settings so that their profile photos are still viewable to all. Let's just say they've looked more professional, and it's definitely not favorable.

emjaydoesPR 5 pts

I'm putting a few finishing touches on the 3rd draft of a policy I'm writing and I've found that, in many cases, organizations aren't making their guidelines or policies explicit enough. Many social media references I've read have cautioned against having do's and don't in their guidelines or policies because it doesn't cater to your Gen-Y's needs, however that goes against everything a 'policy' is and increases the risk of your organization dealing with placenta pictures.

In my experience, it's better to be explicit rather than vague in your policies or guidelines. They are in place to mitigate risk not to show off what a fun and liberal workplace you have.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

emjaydoesPR Good points, especially on do's and dont's. Rules need to be clear, right? I think the key beyond policy is how you communicate it and educate around it. The education and training is what people will remember. Unfortunately, that education often comes through case studies like Doyle's and Glen's. So Legal and other departments have to be open to using real-life examples.


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