How to craft an effective social media policy for your business Featured

7:00pm EDT December 26, 2010

You’ve heard it all before — social media is the wave of the future, and if you don’t get on board, your business will be left in the dust. It is true that in this day and age, a well-designed website is not enough. To be truly effective in marketing and promoting your business, you need social media. Whether you use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or YouTube, a strong social media presence is vital to doing business in the new millennium.

But you can’t just jump into social media. Many considerations must be made, the first of which is the crafting of an effective social media policy.

The first step an employer needs to take before crafting a social media policy is to think about its particular business and what social media issues would be likely to come up in light of the business model or what the business does. Determine what issues are most important to control, and focus on those first.

“For example, if your business does a lot of research and development, the confidentiality of business information is something that must be covered,” says Charla Claypool, an associate with The Stolar Partnership LLP. “If you deal with children on a regular basis, your policy will want to address employees associating with, ‘friending’ or ‘following’ minors. You may want to consider customer privacy and publicity rights concerns, as well.”

Smart Business spoke with Claypool about social media, and what businesses should consider when crafting a social media policy.

What should employers consider when crafting a social media policy?

First, and most important, make sure that the policy complies with the law. As an employer, you have to keep yourself out of trouble for disciplining employees, and the best way to do that is to work with an attorney who has experience in both employment law and social media law. Look for an attorney with significant experience in promotions and/or advertising law, as he or she will also be able to address the legal issues related to business promotion via social media.

An experienced attorney will be able to spot any discrimination issues and will be well versed in any state laws that may come into play. For example, in Illinois, there is a law that does not allow employers to take adverse action against an employee based on information found on a social media site. The law makes it illegal for employers to discipline or discharge employees for use of lawful products off-premises during nonworking hours. So if an Illinois employer went to an employee’s Facebook page and saw a picture of that employee chugging a beer, the employer could not discipline the employee for this behavior, provided the employee is of legal drinking age. Currently, there is no law like this in Missouri, but many states are heading toward this type of legislation.

Another thing to consider when crafting a social media policy is to make sure the policy is consistent with all other office policies, particularly those that apply to computer usage.

What are pros and cons of using social media for business?

The biggest pro is that it’s a relatively inexpensive way to promote your business. Social media may give broader exposure to your business, even more so than hosting a company website. People aren’t going to find your business on the Internet unless they do a specific Google search about your business or what you do. But when you’re active in social media, people come to you, and all those people automatically find out about your business whenever you want them to. You can keep people informed about new products and services, you can offer customer support and you can tout awards and recognitions — and all of this is targeted directly to your customers and clients.

The biggest drawback is that social media requires significant attention and monitoring. You have to be aware of that need and allocate the resources — whether internally or externally — necessary to keep your social media sites up and running. Social media sites have policies of their own (and those policies often change, especially when it comes to business pages), so you need to make sure you’re always operating in accordance with those policies. You don’t want your site to get shut down because you didn’t monitor and keep up with a policy change.

How can you minimize the risk posed by employees using social media?

Make sure you have a social media policy in place and that employees are adequately informed of and trained on that policy. Also, supervisors and human resources personnel must be trained on policy enforcement.

If you do monitor your employees’ social media, be very transparent about it — make it a part of the policy and let employees know from day one that you will be monitoring them. Don’t ever monitor employees in deceptive ways. You cannot create a false persona online to gain access to your employees.

Are there any other social media considerations businesses should be aware of?

Be aware of Federal Trade Commission endorsement guidelines, which have been updated to address online promotion. If someone is promoting your product online and is receiving any type of compensation for it, or has a material connection to your company, certain disclosures must be made.

There was a case where a public relations agency was monitoring social media sites for comments about its clients’ products. The PR agency then posted positive comments and rebuffed negative comments about its clients’ products. The FTC said that was a violation of endorsement regulations because the PR agency didn’t disclose that it was essentially being compensated for its comments.

These guidelines may also come into play when employees promote or defend your company online. It is important to include as part of your social media policy a requirement that employees fully disclose their affiliation with your company when promoting or commenting on your company online.

CHARLA CLAYPOOL is an associate with The Stolar Partnership LLP and is a member of the firm’s Social Media Practice Group. Reach her at cclaypool@stolarlaw.com.