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The Rules of Social Media Engagement

A study published in 2010 surfaced a startling statistic, “75 percent of employers say their business has no formal policy instructing employees on the appropriate use of social networking sites on the job.” The report, “Employer Perspectives on Social Networking,” compiled data from 34,000 businesses in 35 countries.

Does your organization have a formal policy regarding employee use of social media? Perhaps better asked, does your organization offer training, guidelines, and insights to help employees excel in new media on behalf of your business?

In the same study, 63% of employers that employed social networking policies reported that those policies improved productivity. More than a third also stated that social media policies helped protect intellectual property.

Social Media represents the democratization of information and the equalization of influence. Therein lies both the challenge and opportunity for organizations. Nowadays, anyone can create, publish, and distribute ideas, observations, news, and information. Content can now travel around the world through a myriad of connected channels and people faster than the time it took you to read this sentence.

While many businesses are attempting to figure out the potential of social media and their voices and roles within relevant networks, many confuse effective engagement with everyday chatter. At the same time, Instead of establishing leadership and investing in communities, a fair share of organizations relegate the important task of social media to the most junior people on staff with some placing interns in charge of representing the brand online. Why you ask? According to brand managers, it’s because they understand how to use Twitter and Facebook already. These “Twinterns” as they’re called, literally hold the fate of the brands they represent in vibrant and influential networks, where years brand reputation can erode in a matter of minutes.

In order for businesses to maximize the opportunity present within social networks, we must place engagement in the hands of those representatives qualified and trained to do so effectively and strategically.

Training Day

Social media is a critical enabler of engagement, connecting businesses with customers and the people who influence their decisions and perceptions. If we look at other important customer facing functions within the organization such as customer service or sales, training on procedures and company-specific value propositions and solutions in a variety of applications is part of the regiment. Social networks present opportunities to reach a variety of important segments that complement the structure of any organization and as such, in addition to standard community management, delegation is necessary to engage on all fronts combined with the wherewithal to do so.

Everything begins with defining the rules of engagement and then providing the necessary training to prepare qualified representatives for the predictable and also unforeseen circumstances that await them.

For example, if we review the oft-cited incident involving GreenPeace and Nestle’s Facebook Brand page, one could argue that the community manager representing Nestle was unprepared for such a hostile engagement. Unfortunately, not everything in social media is sociable. In this case, GreenPeace targeted Nestle over its use of Palm Oil in certain products. Personal beliefs and opinions aside, this is a very real confrontation that took place in a popular social network because of its visibility. But, what works against us can also work for us. These public forums also represent our opportunity to steer perception, conversation, and action in our favor. Without training and preparation however, even the best will fumble.

The careful selection of capable officials combined with coaching is only the start. The pairing of training with the productive policies and guidelines provides the boundaries for fostering performance and governance. In the case of Nestle, even though the representative acted in a questionable manner, I would bet that the actions did not fall outside of any rules of engagement as they were most likely ambiguous or undefined.

With Social Media Comes Great Responsibility and Opportunity

Going back to 2009, BusinessWeek shared a series of examples where companies were caught by surprise over the stories and updates shared by employees on social networks. The article offered simple advice to help businesses shape their presence rather than react to it, “To prevent information leaks and other liabilities, companies are drafting guidelines for social media interaction.”

It is paramount that every company, regardless of size, industry, or location, immediately draft and circulate guidelines and policies – whether or not social media is practiced officially or unofficially within the organization. The larger the company the greater the imminent risk and drafting policies and providing the training necessary to representatives and employees alike, will prevent unwanted details from spreading. Accordingly, it will encourage the propagation of desirable information.

Employees are enraptured with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social networks  and the sense and sensibility that governs self-restraint and judgment is, for the moment, circumvented by the public recognition that ensues after pressing the “publish” button. In some regards, social media clouds our gift of inner monologue and common sense exchanged in part for instant recognition.

This is more than publishing and it’s far more important than empowering employees with the ability to chat online. It’s our responsibility to contribute to the increase of a significant, tuned, and strategic signal over noise. I assure you that in doing so, you will earn a place among the elite in the ranks of social, new, and emerging media practices within your organization.

Establishing Policies and Guidelines

When writing Engage!, I reviewed countless examples of Social Media policies, many of which are available online for your review.

One of the most universal rules I encountered in my research was to “not be stupid” or to “use common sense.” To assume that common sense is common, however, isn’t applying common sense at all. It leaves actions open to interpretation and not everyone will approach the same instance equally.

Perhaps the biggest mistakes committed by businesses, personalities, and brands in Social Media are those that jump into social networks blindly without a plan of action, a sense of what people are seeking and how and why they communicate.

To help, I assembled a list of best practices for guidelines based on published policies I reviewed. Use them as a framework to provide specific instruction of what to do and what not to do in your branded profiles, outside communities, and also when acting on behalf of the brand or the individual’s personal brand.

Once completed, holding formal workshops around these guidelines for spokespersons and general employees provides a foundation for a formal understanding of the circumstances, objectives, hazards, and nuances associated with community building. Doing so also introduces the governance necessary for rewards and reproach.

The Top 25 Best Practices for Drafting Policies and Guidelines

1. Define a voice and persona representative of the brand’s purpose, mission, and characteristics

2. People expect to interact with people, be personable, consistent, and helpful

3. Keep things conversational as it applies to portraying and reinforcing the personality and value of your brand and the brand you represent

4. Add value to each engagement — contribute to the stature and legacy of the brand

5. Respect those whom you’re engaging and also respect the forum in which you participate

6. Ensure that you honor copyrights and practice and promote fair use of applicable content

7. Protect confidential and proprietary information

8. Business accounts are no place to share personal views unless they reinforce the brand values and are done according to the guidelines and code of conduct

9. Be transparent and be human yes, but also do so based on true value propositions and solutions

10. Represent what you should represent and do not overstep your bounds without prior approval

11. Know and operate within the boundaries defined, doing so protects you, the company, and the people with whom you’re hoping to connect

12. Know when to walk away. Don’t engage trolls or fall into conversational traps

13. Stay on message, on point and on track with the goals of your role and its impact to the real world business in which you contribute

14. Don’t trash competition, spotlight points of differentiation and value

15. Apologize where applicable and according to the established code of conduct. Seek approval by legal or management where such action is not pre-defined

16. Take accountability for your actions and offer no excuses

17. Know whom you’re taking to and what they’re seeking

18. Disclose relationships, representation, affiliation and intentions

19. Refer open issues or questions to those most qualified to answer

20. Practice self-restraint, some things are not worth sharing

21. Empower qualified spokespersons to offer solutions and resolutions

22. Seek the approval of customers and partners before spotlighting their case studies

23. Take the time to interpret the context of a situation before jumping in with a response

24. What you share can and will be used against you – The internet as a long memory

25. When in doubt, ask for guidance

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The New ENGAGE!: If you’re looking to FIND answers in social media and not short cuts, consider Engage!: Choose from the Deluxe or Paperback edition

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81 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “The Rules of Social Media Engagement”

  1. Krista says:

    These are great guidelines, thanks for sharing them Brian! I think with the emotional element of human interactions on social media, any business can’t expect its employees to be perfect. By providing clear guidelines and training, they can lay a solid groundwork but should also accept and prepare for any snafus along the way.

  2. Rakesh Dheer says:

    This is great, thanks Brian

  3. Still hoping there are plans for editions of these in Spanish!

  4. Thank you for this Brian.

    I am a student graduating from Marist College in May, and in hoping to snag a job in social media management I have been following your tweets regularly. It is just recently that the PR and Comm curricula have come to touch on social media. I was lucky enough to have a professor whom understands the power of social media, and took time to look into social media strategy and policies, as far as drafting one for our institution.

    Through my interaction with my institution’s leaders in social media, as well as young professionals in the field, and in launching platforms for the school’s Communication and The Arts program, I have found that being personable, consistent and helpful (#2) is the most important goal of maintaining an effective social media presence. As is in many facets of life, you get what you give.

  5. Pedro Lelis says:

    I’m sure those few tips will help lots of managers to not control but educate their voices on social media.
    This is a key point for every representative brand whose is seeking opportunities on social media networks.

  6. Fantastic outline and summary, Brian. Understanding brand voice is so critical in managing social media. Even something as simple as an internal glossary of terms can go a long way in unifying the voice of a brand. Additionally, it gives a great guiding hand to incoming team members when training is not enough.

  7. Tomer Tagrin says:

    Hi Brian,
    Something funny to think about:
    A lot of your top 25 practices can be relationship/marriage tips. I think that it reflects best how much Social media is a relationship. As a first time founder really valuable info, thanks

  8. Anonymous says:

    That actually does make a lot of sense dude.

  9. Having spearheaded the adoption of social media in a government organization, I agree with these guidelines, they are well thought out and represent clear boundaries of what information is appropriate for social media.

    Understanding the purpose behind the message is important, and from this flows many answers to how far the limits of the guidelines reach.

  10. Agnes Lam says:

    Great guidelines … actually, they are great guidelines for companies interacting with clients and customers, just extending the awareness to the realm of social networks. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Lauren Smith says:

    These are excellent tips, Brian. As an ecommerce & social commerce company we often encourage our clients to create and implement social media plans and the number one rule we share is to be authentic by sticking to a human driven message. No one likes brands that shout at them all the time.

  12. Another great article, I would like to add that the social media policy and training materials should be available for view, download , share and referral at any given time for the employees. No. 17 on the list seem to have to typo “talking”.

  13. Excellent post Brian. I have been looking for information on how companies can engage social media. It seems like most just hap hazardously jump in. I always poll a crowd (when I speak about engaging generational differences,) about social media at work …. And approximately half the room have banned employees from using social media sites like facebook or twitter at work. It seems like they still need to be convinced of the value.

  14. John Barnett says:

    Really great post, Brian. Can’t wait to forward to the powers that be at my comnpany

  15. Steve Goldstein, PR News says:

    I’m wondering how often a social media should be revised within the course of a year, considering how quickly things are evolving.

    • Wlane says:

      Absolutely. I am an employment lawyer for companies and follow the NLRB social media cases daily. Many companies who drafted social policies last year prohibiting employees from making any disparaging comments about their employer are now facing NLRB claims that such policies violate employee rights. Any employer with a social media policy that is older than a few months should consult an employment lawyer immediately to make sure that they are still in compliance with the ever-changing laws and cases.

  16. Great guidelines, Brian. I’m surprised at how many people are still unprofessional on social media. Many businesses can really use your guidelines.

  17. Thanks for putting this list together, Brian. I have had this question asked of me on a number of occasions. I normally ask if the company as an external communications policy. If they do then I say start with that and work forward.

    I think that #14 is important rule. As a consumer, I actually don’t like it when brand A trashes brand B — it seems like a petty move — and it lessens the brand doing the trashing.

  18. sweeneypr says:

    Not for nothing, but anyone who does not know these embarrassingly obvious “Best Practices” has no business being involved in social media. Brian, you are the P.T. Barnum of the modern communications industry.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Obvious, but, still, many pros Do.Not.Get.It. Look at the recent brouhouha between GE and NYTimes!

  20. Rclark says:

    Great post. I recently published a guest post on this subject and was flabbergasted by some comments. It seems there are those who believe common sense is common and we should leave it up to individuals to be smart. My goodness, would anyone use this strategy for a marketing plan, HR policies, how about a company vision? Thank you, I believe a policy, with training, and follow up is critical,

  21. N_Boundy says:

    About Stowe Boyd and his comments about 5 things that will be gone at the end of this year. Perhaps Stu, er Stowe should live in my neighborhood. We lose our electric about twice a year. We live in a dead zone as far as cell phone service goes. We lose our satellite service; computer and television whenever the weather becomes overcast. Couldn’t find ‘Stu’s’ email address, so maybe you could forward this? By the way Stu as I use it is not a noun; it’s an adjective for someone who is not very smart.

  22. Great post, Brian! I find some companies are quick to engage in social media outlets blindly without a plan of action or sense of how social media can truly benefit their company. By doing this, companies can tarnish their reputation and brand quickly. Therefore, if companies are going to utilize social media outlets, then I believe they should establish guidelines for their management team to follow prior to using them.

    The list of The Top 25 Best Practices for Drafting Policies and Guidelines you provided is great for any company who wants to optimize their presence through social media.

    As a journalist, I can tell you first hand that there is nothing more important then Brian’s #1 practice guideline. If you cannot define a voice and persona representative of the brand’s purpose, mission and characteristics, than you are doomed from the start… So what shall I do you ask – research, research and research some more to help gain a better sense of what your competition is doing. You’d be surprised how researching could help improve your company in the process.

    And then there is #7…I love number #7.  Protect confidential & proprietary information. Basically if you are stupid enough or lack serious common sense then PR and Journalism is not the right career path for you.

    #10 is also interesting because if you work for a company you should follow directions and never go above and beyond what you are told to do without getting prior approval from your supervisor. This way you are not held accountable for the results if something were to go wrong.

    Oh yeah, # 23 seems significant in that social media users should take the time to interpret the context of a situation before jumping in with a response. I believe this guideline is crucial to follow because sometimes people interpret things in different ways and the context can be misinterpreted. This may lead to shattered relationships, lost business deals or even a weakened brand. Just imagine what the clean up crew will have to do to re establish the companies brand again.

    So as you can see Brian’s list of The Top 25 Best Practices for Drafting Policies and Guidelines can apply to any size company and help define their target audience and achieve their goals in social media.

    I certainly will incorporate these guidelines into my practice!

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