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Being a good corporate digitizen – do we need to police the Interwebs?

By June 24, 2014Opinion

Corporate social media policies: we all live with them. They’re written into our contracts, posted on the company intranet, rolled out in meetings and waved around when something goes wrong. But what do they actually achieve? And who do they benefit?

A meeting at work recently got me thinking about the social media policy in my company and the expectations those who enforce it have. The general belief among some managerial staff is that no content should ever be published referencing the office or the company or anyone or anything that happens on or off site which is in any way related to the company, whether or not the company is explicitly mentioned. That isn’t the corporate rule, mind, but it is one of myriad interpretations across the business. I understand the intention behind this. Reputational risk is a real thing and managing it is a constant struggle. But the people policing and creating these policies, by their own admission, don’t have “a Facebook” or “a Twitter” and know very little, if anything, about social media in general. My concern is that through sheer ignorance many companies are creating rods for their own backs by writing social media policies that are unreasonable, unrealistic and unmanageable.

Social media sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, are not to be viewed as pin boards for standalone statements users want the whole world to see. They’re social communities made up of geographically discrete friends. They’re people you talk to about the stuff that matters; people with whom you share the good and the bad. Twenty years ago people went home and complained about their days to their family and flatmates. They called their friends and talked about their boss on the phone. They went out for coffee and discussed their annoying co-worker. The only things that have changed are the mode and the speed: Social media lets you tell all those people about all those things within minutes of them happening. This presents a problem for companies. Where information used to spread slowly it’s now in the public space before anyone at the company realises anything has happened. Policing social media must, at times, feel like being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. So what can be done? Surely there is a mid-ground to be occupied.

I believe the best way forward is to affect change from the top. First, create a culture in which the sorts of behaviours that prompt negative outbursts aren’t tolerated. Nurture an environment in which employees know they have safe, reliable, formal, effective processes for dealing with bullying, stress, personality clashes, sexism, racism, the lot! People complain the most when they feel trapped. Remove the causes and the posts will follow naturally. Secondly, focus on education. Many companies, especially larger corporate offices, have internal employee development programmes. Why not add social media etiquette? Teach employees about reputational risk. Explain to them how it directly affects their jobs. Make it real. Help them understand what puts the company at risk and what is easily dismissed as day-at-the-office stuff. The more they understand the better prepared they will be when they do want to post about work.

No matter what way forward companies choose, it is obvious that current policies aren’t working. Without clear, reasonable direction people are left to draw their own lines in the sand and work out for themselves what is and isn’t okay. Me? I won’t say anything online I wouldn’t say standing at a co-worker’s desk. Is that an acceptable judgement? Who knows? It’s certainly more conservative than some.