Best Practices for Creating an Effective Social Media Policy

For some business leaders, the idea of a big change is upgrading the break-room coffeemaker from an old-school percolator to one that turns pods of ground coffee into steaming macchiatos. Imagine, then, how much anxiety goes into abandoning control over their messaging and placing it in the hands of an ever-expanding universe of stakeholders.

In accepting the new communications paradigm, most management teams finally have opened up to participating in social media to some degree. Enter the need for social media policies—codes of conduct for how employees (and, in some cases, consumers) must act when engaging in company-sponsored digital platforms. These policies also help assuage the fears of senior execs, most of whom still want to feel like they have some say in what happens to their brand online.

Based on the experiences of companies at the forefront of social media policy implementation—among them IBM, Dow Jones and HP —communications execs should consider the following best practices when crafting policies of their own.

â–¶ Make sure the policy mirrors the culture. One of the most challenging aspects of developing a social media policy is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach; what works for one organization may completely miss the mark at another. To anticipate potential roadblocks, executives must develop the policy’s content in the context of the company’s culture.

“Projects without regard to culture fail,” says Adam Christensen, social media manager at IBM, underscoring the need for a customized policy.

For example, a company with a very open, collaborative culture—think Southwest Airlines —should maintain that tone in a social media policy and should focus more on encouraging participation while explaining the standards said participation must meet. A more conservative company—or one in a highly regulated industry, such as pharmaceuticals—would benefit more from a cut-and-dried policy that spells out what is acceptable and what isn’t.

In either case, remember one must-have: a clearly articulated list of repercussions for not participating within the established code of conduct (i.e., inflammatory comments will be immediately removed, more than one warning will result in probation, etc.).

â–¶ Ask employees to help shape the policy. Creating a social media policy behind closed doors and then making it the immutable law of the land won’t do much to engender support from employees. On the contrary, it is likely to cause a backlash, as it goes against the very nature of participatory media.

When IBM execs developed the company’s Social Computing Guidelines (, they took a crowd-sourcing-esque approach, asking employees for their input and recommendations. Likewise, any organization can put together a team of employees from various departments to brainstorm, as long as the communications execs in charge remain responsible for moderating discussions, digesting recommendations and finalizing the policies

“Top-down mandates generally don’t work,” Christensen says, “but neither do completely grassroots efforts.”

â–¶ Be authentic, transparent and accessible. Social media policies are all about encouraging stakeholders to participate responsibly, which (hopefully) is a matter of using common sense and good judgment. That said, the very need for a policy suggests that everyone has his/her own definition of common sense, so it’s important to state up front what the policy is and why it’s being created.

A good rule of thumb: Define “social media” at the very beginning and do so in language that everyone can understand. Legalese is fine when your audience is the legal department, but convoluted statements full of clauses and addenda will be lost on most people. That concise, jargon-free style should be maintained throughout the document, which can be as long or as short as is necessary. Whenever possible, include hypothetical examples to illustrate specific provisions.

â–¶ Restrict commentary at your own risk. One of the most common questions that arises when companies begin hosting their own social media platforms is, “Do I have to enable comments?”

The short answer is yes. Disabling commentary immediately implies an unwillingness to have a two-way interaction with audiences, which flies in the face of everything social media stands for. But, if circumstances make a completely laissez-faire approach to commenting untenable, there is a happy medium: reviewing comments before they go live. This allows you to weed out anything that is too sensitive or inappropriate; just be sure to state exactly what types of comments won’t make it to the site in the official policy, which can be referenced if there is ever a point of contention. PRN


Adam Christensen,