Your Social Media Policy May Not Save You

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Companies continue to struggle with Social Media – especially when it comes to rules, policies and guidelines.

There are three "guidelines" that should be a part of every Social Media guidelines or policy – especially if you’re a service provider:

  1. Prior to beginning your work with this organization, you signed an employee agreement that has detailed non-disclosure, privacy and intellectual property clauses. Above all else, those contractual agreements stand.
  2. We do not mention clients by names or programs unless formally agreed upon as a group to help spread the word or to share the great work.
  3. Do your best not to bash brands, companies, products and services. You never know who might become a client or when a current client shifts positions and moves to another company. Tweets like, “clients are really frustrating me today” are not cool either.

As companies have grown, changed and engaged in the many online channels, Social Media has changed and evolved as well.

There are many, many places for people to vent online (especially about our personal customer service gripes). As important of an action as that is and as empowering as it can be (and yes, even a good thing for brands to hear), it’s still very important to think twice about publishing (be it to a Blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc…). Increasingly, brands are paying attention and tracking mentions of themselves and competitors. How does it look when an individual bashes a brand that either a) they represent in some capacity or another or b) when they mention that they are using a competitor’s product or service?

Individuals need to be more careful and vigilant.

In a perfect world, service providers should be supporting the brands they represent. It’s not a perfect world and that’s not always possible, but it’s important to keep in mind that if you praise one of our client’s competitors, what you’re really saying is that you don’t use the client’s products or services. If you bash a competitor of one of your clients, it can be perceived that your client encourages their service providers to bash the competitors.

The world has changed and it’s complicated.

What if you’re talking about a brand and it’s for personal use (not something for work)? Are you beholden to the company that employs you outside of office hours? What about your loyalty to the brands you work for (regardless of when it’s office hours or not)? Personally, I choose to not mention brands on the Blog, Twitter or Facebook, but lately, I have seen multiple posts in multiple spaces by people discussing brands. Sometimes it’s bashing their own client’s competitors. Sometimes it’s about being a new customer for a client’s competitors. Regardless of what we think, there are perceptions that those pieces of content can have in our ever-changing world.

How do we not repress what real people think in the real world?

Nobody wants to police their employees or come off as some kind of Social Media overlord. But, do you think that individuals really stop to consider who is seeing everything they publish, what their clients might think (whether it’s true or not) and what that can mean to their relationship with their clients and their potential clients?

Where does freedom of speech conflict with better business judgment?


  1. This is one of those dilemmas for the books!
    The premise of social media began as an opportunity for real people to be real. Whether those people are your employees (and, inevitably, those people are someone’s employees) or not. My thought is that rather than eliminating (or forbidding) social sharing of one’s opinion on a brand, we should help shape the message.
    As you mention in this post, Mitch – sometimes companies/brands need to hear these messages. But rather than making it a venting situation, can we help employees make it a learning opportunity?
    Just my 2 cents.

  2. Your first three points hit the nail squarely on the head, Mitch. Social media creates new communications channels but it doesn’t change the fundamental principles. Like it or not, when you go to work for a company, you agree to represent that company professionally in public. Public now includes online.
    I’ve heard a lot of people say the only social media policy you need is, “Don’t be stupid,” and in a perfect world that would work. As you point out, it’s not a perfect world. I would add, “Don’t say anything online you wouldn’t say to someone’s face.”

  3. Good question. I agree with @Judi and @David.
    So, there is business and there is personal life. And now everything is public. And we know that the more authentic and engaged the conversations are, the more value the market has.
    In conclusion, I would let the conversations be open and let go those employees who are bashing their clients on public forums. Simply because they do not enjoy nor understand their job enough.
    However, I don’t think bashing brands is a big deal anyway. Grown up brands should be able to take it.
    Social media policy sounds cool and it might comfort clients, but like the NDA, it’s never used.
    PS Love the Jaffe & Joel exchanges.

  4. In social media, “Freedom of speech” is not a complete phrase. Complete it with “who’s listening”. And then guide your social presence.

  5. While in business terms, the contractual agreements stand, but there has been a long standing debate even in traditional media about freedom of speech vs. personal responsibility.
    I know of many activists who say what they want in the name of freedom of speech but disregard the fact that their freedom is damaging either others directly, or their own reputation.
    It sure does boil down to who’s listening, or whos being spoken to. Bur irrespective of that, since the internet tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive, its best to keep personal thoughts and rants to oneself.
    One reason why I stopped blogging is because I felt my life just too out there in public and I wanted to keep a low profile. Suddenly, social media doesnt want to be social.

  6. It’s refreshing to read a post that is completely applicable and educational. That’s what this post was for me this morning and I think @David got it completely right by applauding your first three points.
    It’s never easy when dealing with “free speech” issues but most of the time it does boil down to “there have to be some rules, right?” Even over the fear of being seen as a Social Media Overlord, I think the possibility of Social (Media) Anarchy is a much bigger detriment to a brand or organization.

  7. In my mind, it all comes down to goals. What is more important to you in the heat of the moment? Your long-term goals of growing your business, landing all of the clients in this vertical or that vertical, etc? Or, expressing your thoughts and your passions that, while they may push some people away, can also draw certain people to you?
    Marcus Sheridan posted about something very similar on his The Sales Lion blog recently:

  8. I’m a consultant working with Palo Alto Networks, a network security company that helps enterprises manage social networking apps on the corporate network. IT departments are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They know that end-users and the business units will revolt if these apps are outright blocked. At the same time, they know these apps carry risks and can’t leave them unchecked. It requires a good balance between enablement and security. There is a good whitepaper on the subject of blocking social networking apps, “To Block or Not. Is that the question?”

  9. The challenge with blocking apps is that it assumes users are only accessing them at work. What about smart phones and home computers? Social media policies don’t end when a person leaves the office, it needs to be something people consider 24/7 regardless of how they’re accessing the technology.
    I still go back to the common analogy – don’t post anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of a newspaper or on a billboard in front of your mom.

  10. Freedom of speech online is the same as freedom of speech offline. The rules of communication don’t change in terms of what you’re saying about other people, brands, companies – regardless of where you’re saying it.
    It’s all down to personal morals and beliefs and I don’t think that technology should change that. Would you praise your client’s competitor products in front of your clients, would you publicly put down your boss or your clients in front of other people. Hopefully not. Although some people do.
    It’s really about personal integrity and not everyone is the same. Social media policies are there to protect companies and brands. People need to think if their social media persona shows integrity and will what they say stop them getting a job in the future? Companies need to think about the people they want representing their brands.
    Usage of social media without being restricted requires respect. Respect from employers to know that social media has changed the way we communicate and consume information. Respect from employees not to abuse the power of being able to publish.

  11. Totally agree with Lindsay. All that you say you’re totally right and should all think that way.

  12. Employees need to be cognizant that what they say online is a representation of their own organization. Outside of the workplace, even though “technically” you are representing yourself, whatever you say, reflects ultimately on yourself and indirectly to who you work for. As the lines blur between private and public even further, the linkage between an individual and their employer will become even more evident. Thus policies are critical to protect both the individual and the company as not everyone remembers to follow common sense.

  13. Instead of having a policy in place that blocks social media completely or doesn’t block social media at all and expects employees to follow policy rules, why not block some pieces of social media and keep some parts of social media accessible? Social media is growing in the business world and companies would be missing out on its benefits if it is blocked entirely. Palo Alto Networks might have found a solution to this problem, they have a new software that has the ability to do thing such as a read-only facebook. I think companies could really benefit from something like this, what do you think? Here’s a link to new whitepapers they have created:

  14. Generally speaking, I’m opposed to social media policies. We blogged about this back in March digging specifically into the question of
    productivity and social media.
    You hire employees because you trust them to do good work. Part of that “good work” involves making a good faith effort to treat others and your brand with respect. If they fail to do so, whether online or off, you have grounds to question their competence and commitment.
    Social media hasn’t made the question of workplace honesty more complicated, it’s made it less complicated. Now, everyone knows who you are and you don’t have to worry about hiding. Instead, you can focus on being yourself, all of the time.

  15. Definitely an interesting conversation! To me, policies are about 2 things: a) mitigating risk and b) shaping and fostering a desired work culture.
    For risk, sure you can get new employees to sign whatever document you want them to sign (as long as they know what they’re signing), but at the end of the day what really has the most impact is how ALL staff behave and act according to the policy.
    For “b”, before we had the web information moved at a snail’s pace and the channels available to us to communicate were far fewer. What this means today is that information moves faster than the blink of an eye, so before you can turn around and take a breath, what you said 5 minutes ago could already be public knowledge. I also believe that brands adapt to the times so if an employee tweets something to be perceived in a negative light then I’m not convinced World War 3 is going to break out.
    I have done quite a few presentations to Gen Y groups about personal branding, a big topic is how to leverage the web to enhance your personal brand. I also point out that on the flip side, you need to be careful of what you say, in order to protect your personal brand. Employees of companies should also be thinking in this light as well.
    By the way, those agreements that companies like to have their employees sign before they start work are only as good as the company’s willingness to enforce them (a.k.a. would you take the employee to court?)… hmmmm!!

  16. The study found that global corporations are struggling to manage an average of 178 business-related social media accounts. 178 business-related social media accounts! To be even more clear, these are not personal accounts, but all accounts opened by the company.

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