Social media policy

by Lee Hopkins on November 30, 2010 · 3 comments

in strategy

Let's talkConversations happen everywhere, not just in cyberspace. Friends talk with friends, family talk with family, neighbours talk with neighbours, and employees talk with customers.

But when those conversations take place online, where Google is there to capture every word, or video capture and voice capture software can record conversations without one party realising, things can start to become more ‘risky’ for an organisation.

This and tomorrow’s post aim to reduce the risk of online conversations by showing you how to navigate the minefield of employee-to-outside world and employee-to-employee online conversations. They will look at social media ethics, social media policies and where to find examples of those policies that you can tailor to suit your own organisational requirements.

Social media ethics: the 3Ts and an A

Good social media practice is based on entering into and maintaining mutually beneficial conversations.

One way to consider this is to mentally picture four foundational pillars that support your social media practice, the pillars being Truth, Trust, Transparency and Accountability. Let’s look at each in turn.


If you consistently speak the truth in your conversations (be those conversations by yourself or by your employees), then over time you will gain the trust of your conversational partners.

Of course, Truth is a flexible beast, and there are limits about how much of the truth can be released at any given moment. But the inhabitants of the social media world are more likely to believe in your integrity, and thus believe in your words, when you open yourself up and say what is on your mind.

Naturally, you can stop short of ‘the whole truth’ if that truth includes ‘commercial in confidence’ material, or material sensitive to a third party, but the inhabitants of the social media world are no longer satisfied with companies who hide behind endless ‘we cannot tell you’ statements, and make their dissatisfaction known, sometimes to a very wide audience.

The secret to good social media relations is to engage with others as you would had you met them at a barbecue at a friend’s place. Meet them with patience, tolerance and honesty as much as you can and you will be rewarded accordingly. If they point out an area where your company could make improvements, acknowledge that and gracefully ‘take it on the chin’; that improvement could be the one that cascades and leapfrogs your organisation to a new level.

If you have the organisational power to enact that improvement, do it and let the person who suggested it (or people if more than one person suggests it) know that you have and what the outcome has been/is expected. If you don’t have the organisational power to enact the suggested improvement, make sure that the idea is forwarded to someone who does, and let those who made the suggestion know that you have forwarded the idea on. Ideally, you would let them know to whom you forwarded the suggestion, but that may be a step too far for the organisation in its early days of social media engagement.

Either way, if you can show that you have acted consistently over time to deliver the truth, as openly as you can whilst mindful of commercial confidences, you will build up reputational trust in your audience. Break that trust and your digital reputation takes a beating; the bigger the break the bigger the beating.


Despite mainstream press commentary to the opposite, the inhabitants of the social media world (that is, most of your organisation and most of the world outside of your organisation’s front door) don’t set out to be deliberately difficult and nasty.

People have a tendency to react to something (an event, a person, an organisation) in the same way that they are reacted to. Like meets like.

Therefore it makes sense to build a sense of trust into your conversations, a trust that everyone in the conversation will treat everyone else with respect.

As an organisation amongst cynical citizens, you must be first to trust in the intentions and goodwill of others, even if you fear otherwise. In controversial situations and times, there will no doubt be some anger and angst expressed against the organisation, or against those who engage with the public or their employees via online channels, but the organisation should still engage from a position that trusts that the goodwill will return, that common-sense will prevail, and that only 10 per cent of the readership will comment, but the remaining 90 per cent will be watching very closely to see how you react, looking for signs that you are behaving like a good corporate citizen. Trust in their ability to influence their peers in ways that you cannot control, nor sometimes even witness.


Much as there are limits on how much ‘truth’ you can deliver at any one time, so too there are sound reasons why an organisation might want to limit the amount of information it shares with its various stakeholders. Issues of legal disclosure, third party commercial sensitivity, strategic direction, inter alia means there are sometimes conversations that have to be cut short at the ‘sorry, but we cannot talk about this at the moment’ stage.

However, wherever possible online conversations in this new social media landscape should be conducted with as much transparency as possible.

Thus, employees who are engaging in conversations within the social media space should be named. For example, a Twitter account with the name, XYZCorp should have, somewhere in the ‘Bio’ section, the real name of the employee managing that Twitter account. Or if there is a Customer Service team blog, the names of the tweeters should be given.

How Optus Australia Customer Service manages its Twitter account

Optus Australia have a very transparent process when it comes to managing their various Twitter accounts, including their product/service related account, ‘@Optus’.

At the beginning of each shift, the staff managing the account announce who they are, and then in each tweet they also say their name.

For example:

“@MoneyInSilk Social Internet is free on most new plans therefore we split it to make it easier to track charged data usage :) Holly”

“@MoneyInSilk If you have any questions or concerns about ur bill u can always drop us a tweet & we can organise to give you a call – Holly”

“@scrummitch If you’re interested in a career just click on this link → – Greg :)

This level of transparency has been adopted by many customer service organisations in Australia who use Twitter to engage in conversation with their customers.


Similarly, if your organisation is one that represents others you should always publicly acknowledge that relationship. Thus, in your tweets, for example, when talking about something one of your clients has done, or you are asking them a question, preface or end your tweet with ‘[client]’ or ‘#client’; for example, “@rhsa_CEO: What is the state of the housing market this month? #client”

Or if you are blogging or talking about a client or supplier in a video or podcast, make sure you let your audience clearly know that you have a relationship with that named organisation or person.

Should you decide to hide these relationships, sooner or later they will become common knowledge (the internet, and social media in particular, is particularly good at finding out the stuff that some prefer remains hidden) and you or your organisation’s digital reputation could take a beating as a result. It is better to be open and honest about these relationships from the outset, that way no one can accuse you of hiding something.


Google has a long memory. Words and actions that you take today may come back to haunt you in six months or six years’ time.

Therefore it makes sense, as has been discussed above, to be truthful, trusting and transparent whenever you engage in online conversation. But equally you hold yourself and your employees accountable for what you say, even if what you say changes over time.

The time has long gone when politicians and others could say, “you quoted me out of context.” With the ubiquitous presence of digital capture technology comes the ability to find the entire context for oneself, so that the previous excuses no longer wash.

However, that doesn’t mean that an organisation, or indeed a person, cannot change its mind over time. Naturally, as new events and information comes to light, as circumstances change and unfold, even deeply-held beliefs can be modified or turned 180 degrees. Organisations are no different from human beings in that regard.

Social media conversations should always be conducted in a human voice not a corporate one, between human beings who allow themselves and each other to change their minds. Therefore, as long as an organisation doesn’t back away from a previously stated position but instead acknowledges it AND THEN goes on to explain why the position has changed, including links to the information that shaped that change of position, then the organisation has nothing to fear.

That is not to say that the organisation will never be criticised. Of course it will; there will always be malcontents and the disappointed online – just as there are malcontents and the disappointed offline too – but their numbers and influence will be small.

As example of ‘accountability’ in practice, consider an employee who blogs on the company’s behalf and has responded to a comment on a post, saying that they will look into the matter raised and get back to the commentator.

That employee is now accountable to do just that and should they fail to do so they should be questioned as to why they failed in their duty. Similarly, if the organisation (through one of its employees) says that it will pass on a particular piece of information to a relevant department (or, preferably, person) then the organisation is accountable to do so. Should it become known, later, that the organisation failed to do what it said it would, the organisation’s digital trust reputation will take a ‘hit’.

3Ts and an A: the outcome

But as long as the organisation, and its employees who social mediarise on its behalf, are truthful in their conversations, trusting of the goodwill and good intentions of those other conversationalists, are transparent in the relationships they have with third parties and accountable for what they say and promise, the ethical organisation should have no fear of engaging in the social media landscape.

Part two – Building an ethical, social media-friendly culture – tomorrow.

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