Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Social Media Policies Are Not An Option

According to Wikipedia, a policy is “typically described as a principle or rule to guide decisions and achieve rational outcome(s). The term is not normally used to denote what is actually done, this is normally referred to as either procedure or protocol. Whereas a policy will contain the 'what' and the 'why', procedures or protocols contain the 'what', the 'how', the 'where', and the 'when'. Policies are generally adopted by the Board of or senior governance body within an organization where as procedures or protocols would be developed and adopted by senior executive officers.”

Organizations, regardless of their involvement in social media activities, should implement a social media policy to protect against the internal and external risks posed by social media.  Regardless of the strong case for social media policies, there are a lot of opinions against their use in the workplace. Try Google-ing “social media policy” and you will get around 32,900,000 opinions! If you read what is being said you will find good arguments on both sides. But the bottom line is this: any organization interested in protecting its brand and reputation must ensure that it has in place some form of social media policy to protect against the many risks that are posed by social media. Social media risks originate both internally and externally and exist regardless of an organization’s decision to participate in social media activities.

Critics of social media policies say “you can’t control what is uncontrollable!” Agreed. And that’s exactly why a social media policy is necessary. Contrary to critics’ beliefs, a social media policy is not intended to “control” anything. Its purpose is to give employees guidance, keep them from making severe errors in judgment and allow the organization to identify potential issues before they elevate to the status of a crisis. No policy, regardless how well written, can “control” the risks. The best a policy can do is mitigate the risks. Policies work for organizations that understand that risk happens.

In a perfect world organizations hire individuals that are smart, capable and masters of common sense. Unfortunately we don’t live in that world. In our world, smart, capable and generally common sensical employees make dumb decisions from time-to-time. Further, for many companies, the youngest employees, while smart and capable, many times lack the experience and maturity needed to make all the right decisions all the time. And unfortunately it is these employees that are likely the most experienced and active users of social media. In these situations, formal written social media policies provide employees with the guidance to navigate difficult or unknown situations.

In a perfect world, every organization provides world class products, services and gives each customer the attention they demand to keep them happy. In the real world, no matter how hard organizations try, mistakes are made, customers are disgruntled and dissatisfaction is voiced. Historically such dissent was limited to irate phone calls and letters and possibly the loss of business of the unhappy customer. Today with the use of social media, customers have the ability to reach and influence current and potential customers on a scale that can invoke real pain and suffering.

Businesses are not only in the business of making or servicing widgets. Businesses are also in the business of making and servicing the organization’s brand. The stronger the brand, the greater the revenues. Organizations can enhance their brand and competitive advantage and potentially generate greater revenues and profits with a well crafted social media strategy. However, before unleashing a social media strategy, organizations should craft a social media policy that provides the necessary guidance to ensure that social media risks are properly mitigated. The social media policy is the key to ensuring that social media risks area kept under control and to acceptable levels.

Lack of attention to social media risks can have the opposite effect. Companies that take a laissez faire approach to social media risks stand a greater likelihood of experiencing major embarrassments, reputational harm and the need for a major incident response. As such, it is in every company’s best interest to establish guidelines for social media usage through the implementation of a social media policy.

Social media poorly managed has the potential to adversely affect the organization, its brand, reputation and revenues. The upside to participating in social media is an enhanced brand and increased revenues and profitability. While social media does pose risks, if well managed, social media provides benefits that far outweigh the costs. The key to managing the risks is a well-crafted formal written social media policy and training program that is understood and adhered to by employees. A social media policy will not eliminate all of the risk but it goes a long way in allowing everyone to sleep at night. Ultimately, whether an organization undertakes a social media strategy will depend on its appetite for risk. Since many social media risks exist regardless of an organization’s decision to participate in social media, it is in the best interest of organizations to implement some form of social media policy.


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