Social Media Guidelines Should Inspire Engagement, Not Restrict It

While no organization that engages with audiences on social networks should be without a social media policy, that doesn't mean slapping one together and forcing it on employees is the correct course. A social media policy should flow naturally from a company's culture and incorporate employee feedback in its development.

At the first day of the 2011 PRSA Conference in Orlando, Fla., Priya Ramesh, director, social media, CRT/tanaka, and George Faulkner, program manager, social brand engagement, IBM Corp., spelled out some social media policy basics (never mention a client on social networks without checking with them first, get legal involved), but mostly they emphasized that a policy needs to be unique to an organization and be a call to action.

A good place to start is with IBM's social computing guidelines, said Ramesh, who called them a "must read." IBM's guidelines were developed through a long process of engagement with employees, followed by a search for social media champions in senior management. The company's guidelines deliberately avoid a scolding, dire tone.

"Social media guidelines are not supposed to be restricting," Ramesh said. "They should emphasize how to engage effectively. They are meant to empower your employees."

Faulkner said that the first step in creating a social media policy is to have a solid culture base within an organization. Company values and goals should be clearly understood by all employees, and should be woven into a policy that gets all employees excited about engaging on social networks on behalf of the brand.

"In our case we drafted the first set of guidelines within the communications team," said Faulkner. "Then we opened that draft on a wiki and let people have a voice on it. Then we revised the guidelines and presented them to the powers that be. That’s when things got interesting. It was difficult, but it started the right conversations at the top. It came back from senior management, we published them and we never promoted them. News of the guidelines spread organically. People take them more seriously when you don’t shove them down their throats."

Ramesh said that some companies are merely happy to be on the various social channels and don't have a clear social strategy. When that's the case, it's difficult to develop guidelines that can inspire engagement. "You must first ask what your strategy is on social networks—whether it's brand building, customer service, finding sales leads. If you can state clearly what your core strategy is for engaging online, then you can move on to your social media policy."

Hear more from social media expert Priya Ramesh at PR News' Facebook Conference, which will be held on Dec. 1 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

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