Social Media Policies: Doing It Right

Set Forth Best Practices, Not Restrictions, Expert Says
Social Media Policies: Doing It Right
In social media policies, organizations are putting too much emphasis on what not to do, as opposed to how to navigate the space effectively, says social media expert Sherrie Madia.

Organizations need to explain the space they're operating in and then speak about accountability, the role of the employee. "It's about setting forth guidelines and best practices, as opposed to simply saying here's what not to do," Madia says in an interview with's Tom Field [transcript below].

Madia, Director of Communications, External Affairs at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of several current and forthcoming books on social media, says if a social media policy works, it starts sounding more like common sense instead of a set of rules.

Social media policies should also include examples, offering analysis on what to do and what certain situations mean. Some industries enforce strict rules that shy people away from using the technology, as opposed to aiding them in using it carefully.

"It's really about offering a common sense document that is clear and specific, but not so specific that employees can't move about the space," says Madia.

In an exclusive interview about social media policies, Madia discusses:

  • Where organizations miss the boat on creating good policies;
  • The elements of good - and bad - policies;
  • Advice for organizations looking to create or refine their policies.

Madia, Ph.D. is an educator, author and trainer. Her most recent books include The Social Media Survival Guide [Also available in Spanish], The Online Job Search Survival Guide, and S.E.R.I.A.L.PRENEURSHIP: The Secrets of Repeatable Business Success. She is frequently cited by the national media as an expert in social media. In addition to her role at Wharton, she is managing partner of EyeCatcher Digital, a strategy consulting firm, offering corporate training in presentation skills, corporate image consulting and strategy planning.

TOM FIELD: The last time we spoke we talked about surviving social media, and presumably we all are so far. Why don't you tell us a little about your current work please?

SHERRIE MADIA: In January, I just completed a book specific to non-profits, which is a fascinating sector. We're seeing more and more social media activity there. The book's called, "Social Media Survival Guide for Non-Profits." Then, coming out in August and just in time for 2012 elections, I have the "Social Media Survival Guide for Political Campaigns." There are nuances pertinent to industry-specific areas of need that really need to be addressed through these topics, and a lot is going on I'm finding. I'm speaking more and more to organizations that are looking to shape and reshape their social media efforts both internally and externally.

Acceptance of Social Media

FIELD: I feel like when we spoke before, maybe there was still some denial about the prevalence of social media. Do you find that organizations accept now that social media is there, whether they want it or not?

MADIA: I do. Some still with reluctance and some kicking and screaming, but they all have realized this thing is gone. The horse is out of the gate and they need to find a way to engage. Last year I talked a lot about this. We're going to see integration in institutionalization and that is precisely what we're seeing now. Companies are saying this has to now be laced into our mainstream marketing efforts, our internal communications efforts and all that we're doing and that's happening within the field of communication within the workplace. A lot of things are changing, and again as usual with social media, quite rapidly.

FIELD: You've talked about such things as social media in the election. You've talked about social media for non-profits. How prevalent is social media in any kind of a work place now?

MADIA: It's extremely prevalent, and part of that is what employees are doing on there own and part of that is what companies are doing internally. What we're starting to see in fact are different organizational mechanisms cropping up. We're seeing a lot of social media directories within organizations. Universities will do this a lot. They'll show a social media directory displaying all of the departments and all of their social media networks that are available, and we see this throughout organizations. This is really a sign that we're mainstreaming in new ways, but it doesn't mean that we've done the learning involved in terms of education, awareness and how we're presenting this content. There is a lot of work to be done in that area.

FIELD: One of the things we've talked about consistently is the need for social media policies, and you tell me, but I get the sense that social media policies aren't quite so prevalent as social media.

MADIA: They're not. Some companies are still highly reluctant to even touch a social media policy, and what we do see is a lack of consistency across social media policies, dramatic differences in terms of what's in and what's out of these policy documents. It's causing a great deal of confusion still within work places. They're not sure how to approach them. They are not sure how to implement them, and we need to start solving this quickly because we're going to see more and more issues of situations in which that policy or the guidelines really do need to be set into place. There is also a great deal of thought that needs to be applied particularly to social media policies.

FIELD: Where do you find that organizations are most missing the boat when it comes to social media policies?

MADIA: When it comes to their policy documents, most organizations are putting too much in the category of what not to do. Don't do this. Don't do that. These are becoming documents that really turn us off to using these networks as opposed to setting guidelines of how we navigate through appropriately. That's an important distinction. In fact, what we are seeing in organizations that are doing it right, they aren't just setting forth guidelines. They are also saying, "See our employee code of conduct. See documents that exist already and follow those rules, and then we need a different nuisance document in the form of guidelines to tell people clearly how to function within that space, both personally and professionally."

Elements of a Good Policy

FIELD: In your experience though, what would you say are the elements of a good policy?

MADIA: A good policy first and foremost offers context; explain the space. We can't make assumptions that the work force is on the same page in terms of what these channels can do for us. Offer that context, and then speak to accountability, the role of the employee. What we're finding is that there is a great deal of accountability in this space and everything is quantifiable and employees simply need to be made cognizant of that fact. It's about setting forth guidelines and best practices, as opposed to simply saying here is what not to do. That means we need to include in these policy documents examples. This is the right thing to do. This is what we mean. It's about showing them. Finally, it's about using the golden rule test. If you are reviewing your social media policy, and it starts to sound an awful lot like common sense, chances are you've gotten it right, but that common sense has to be offered in the context of this new space.

FIELD: Do you find that there are types of organizations or even industrial sectors that are better at this than others so far?

MADIA: Yes, we see examples across the board, across industries, of organizations that are really getting it right. Then we see organizations that aren't getting it right. Media outlets tend to be some of those organizations who come down too hard on the side of saying no, and we understand why. In 2009 the Associated Press came out with a social media policy that received negative push-back from employees because it was so restrictive. They basically couldn't use the space at all. But then we see the other side of the scale. BBC has received positive reviews for their policy because they've offered in fact two policies. One for personal use and one for professional use, and employees are finding it helpful when you really spell out what's in scope and what's not.

Bad Policy Making

FIELD: Now the flip side of this, what have you found to be examples of bad policy making?

MADIA: Bad policy making is the policy that starts with simply telling people what they can't do in restrictive ways. And these are some of the worst offenders in terms of the language and policies, setting expectations that employees simply can't uphold. For example, the Common Wealth Bank in Australia is one case in point where they've said to their employees within the scope of their policy document, if you see someone posting something offensively on your page or something that speaks in a negative way against our brand, it's your job to out them. It's your job to identify who they are and to report them. This is a level of policing the space that really doesn't jive with what that space is all about, so they received a great deal of negativity once that document was released.

Social Media: Doing It Right

FIELD: As you know there are a number of organizations that need to create their policies, and some that should be refining theirs as well. If you could boil it down for these organizations that are looking to do it right, what would you advise them?

MADIA: First and foremost is to explain the space. Offer guidelines that are just simply that. That goes as a case in point. They have two points in their policy: be real and use your best judgment. Now for some organizations that's too bare bones, but ultimately it's about empowering employees to do the right thing in the social media space just as they would do the right thing in the professional space on a telephone call or via an e-mail. It's really about offering a common sense document that is clear and specific, but not so specific that employees can't move about the space. Finally, offer some examples of tone, style and the kinds of content that are in scope and the kinds of content that aren't. And I go back to the golden rule. If it's common sense, and you're applying that within this space, knowing what to say and what not say, it functions just as it does across any other space.

FIELD: Very good. And once you get done with the Presidential election, what is your next topic of focus?

MADIA: That is yet to be determined. I'm doing an awful lot though, I will say, in terms of Facebook for young people and how young people are utilizing this space. Parents are frantic and concerned and they need to be educated, so there's a lot of work to be done in that space as well.

About the Author

Jeffrey Roman

Jeffrey Roman

News Writer, ISMG

Roman is the former News Writer for Information Security Media Group. Having worked for multiple publications at The College of New Jersey, including the College's newspaper "The Signal" and alumni magazine, Roman has experience in journalism, copy editing and communications.

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