Fast Company

Corporate Social Media Policies: The Good, the Mediocre, and the Ugly

social media policies

CNN’s senior editor of Middle Eastern affairs, Octavia Nasr, was shown the door Wednesday after sending a tweet that expressed respect for the Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. Despite a lengthy explanation of her 140 character foot-in-mouth, CNN brass stood by their decision. The news organization has pretty clear guidelines about how its employees (and freelancers and interns) should represent themselves on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media destinations.

That got us thinking: Of all the corporate social media policies out there, which are intelligent and balanced, and which are draconian? We've compiled several examples here--but are still looking for more (email us your company's policy to ideas@fastcompany.com and we'll add it to the mix).

CNN

The news organization's policy was published on the blog of a terminated employee. The original post has the entire policy, but here are the highlights (all-caps emphasis is theirs):

UNLESS GIVEN PERMISSION BY CNN MANAGEMENT, CNN EMPLOYEES ARE TO AVOID TAKING PUBLIC POSITIONS ON THE ISSUES AND PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONS ON WHICH WE REPORT.

The best rule of thumb is, keep in mind whether what you are doing or saying is "in public." In most cases, what you write online is public or can be made public.

CAN I COMMENT IN A CHAT ROOM?

It depends on what you’re commenting on. A chat room is, of course, a public place. If you identify yourself, or could in any way be identified, then you should not comment on anything CNN reports on. Remember, even though you don’t say who you are, someone else might reveal your identity. AND if you’re discussing things that are in the news, keep in mind you could be seen as representing CNN, and therefore you should not comment on the issues CNN covers.

HOW ABOUT MYSPACE, FACEBOOK OR OTHER SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES?

Again, on these sites only write about something CNN would not report on. Don't list preferences regarding political parties or newsmakers that are the subject of CNN reporting. Local issues that CNN wouldn’t report on would be OK. And of course private communication with friends or family about issues that aren’t in the news is fine. If you are not sure, ask your supervisor or S&P for parameters on posting. (S&P contact info is listed below).

Also keep in mind that you should not be commenting or writing about what goes on in the workplace at CNN without specific approval by CNN senior managers. For example, in some cases there have and will be exceptions made to have some staff get information out to an outside audience on platforms like Twitter about our upcoming coverage plans.

But without those approved exceptions, your workplace activity is proprietary and so you should not be writing on these sites about what goes on behind the scenes here at CNN.

CAN I HAVE MY OWN WEBSITE OR BLOG?

Yes. But you should notify your supervisor about it, to have it cleared as a non-conflict for your work. Your supervisor may choose to then have it cleared at another level or by S&P. And again, you shouldn’t post commentary on anything you might cover in your work or CNN may report on, or write about the CNN workplace or post CNN material without permission by a senior CNN manager.

WHAT ABOUT POSTING LINKS TO OTHER WEBSITES, ARTICLES FROM OTHER PUBLICATIONS AND VIDEO FROM OTHER SOURCES?

Again, if your web activity clearly shows that you are taking a position on an issue CNN reports on or is likely to report on, you should avoid such activity.

In addition, you should not operate under an alias on your website or blog in order to participate in biased public behavior. Despite your use of an alias to express a view that may present a conflict of interest, it is still your opinion. Your real identity and occupation could be revealed by someone else at any point.

WHY SHOULDN’T I COMMENT ON NEWS OR CURRENT AFFAIRS?

Unless given permission to comment publicly on the issues or people we report on as a CNN analyst or commentator, it is important that you and all other CNN employees be independent and objective regarding the news and people that we cover.

If you publicly declare your preference for issues or candidates or one side or the other of the public policy issues CNN reports on, then your ability to be viewed as objective is compromised.

We appreciate that everyone has a life outside work and we encourage all of our employees to get involved with the issues that are important within their communities. That said, you need to avoid any appearance of bias or partiality. It’s just one of the responsibilities associated with working for a news organization.

After reading the policy, Trey Pennington, a social media consultant and author of Spitball Marketing says, “The case does seem to highlight an as-yet unsolved challenge created by the mash-up of traditional media with social media: how to maintain a corporate appearance of objectivity while allowing individual corporate reporters unfettered expressions of subjectivity. No doubt we'll be caught in no-man's-land while the appearance of objectivity morphs into reality. Looks like Octavia popped her head up in no-man's-land and got shot with friendly fire.”

Intel

The full policy can be found here but some of the main points include:

  • Stick to your area of expertise and provide unique, individual perspectives on what's going on at Intel and in the world.
  • Post meaningful, respectful comments—in other words, no spam and no remarks that are off-topic or offensive.
  • Always pause and think before posting. That said, reply to comments in a timely manner, when a response is appropriate.
  • Respect proprietary information and content, and confidentiality.
  • When disagreeing with others' opinions, keep it appropriate and polite.
  • Know and follow the Intel Code of Conduct and the Intel Privacy Policy

Mari Smith, social media speaker and trainer says, "I especially appreciate 'Did you screw up?' and 'If it gives you pause, pause.' Other companies would do well to emulate these two policies."

Lynne d Johnson, senior vice president of social media for the Advertising Research Foundation (and a former editor for Fast Company) points out, "You can tell Intel cares about its employees being brand ambassadors and that they've seriously thought about their guidelines. It's not just a step 1-10 guideline process, but a detailed, example-filled effort."

BestBuy

Twelpforce gets kudos for handling customer issues via Twitter. But the whole social media policy -- just two pages long -- deals with much more. Take a look at the detailed 'don’ts.'

  • The numbers: Non-public financial or operational information. This includes strategies, forecasts and most anything with a dollar-figure attached to it. If it’s not already public information, it’s not your job to make it so.
  • Promotions: Internal communication regarding drive times, promotional activities or inventory allocations. Including: advance ads, drive time playbooks, holiday strategies and Retail Insider editions.
  • Personal information: Never share personal information regarding other employees or customers. See the Customer Information Policies for more information.
  • Legal information: Anything to do with a legal issue, legal case, or attorneys.
  • Anything that belongs to someone else: Let them post their own stuff; you stick to posting your own creations. This includes illegal music sharing, copyrighted publications, and all logos or other images that are trademarked by Best Buy.
  • Confidential information: Do not publish, post, or release information that is considered confidential or top secret.

Smith says this policy is warm and sincere, and "transcends social media." She also commends the "Honor our differences policy."

Johnson, on the other hand, wishes there were warning systems built in for employees. "For instance, someone may forget to, or not have a room in a tweet, to say though I work for Best Buy these opinions are solely mine and not that of the company. Say if they're tweeting about an electronics product they love personally. This person could get fired? Seems unfair. How badly you have to F up or in which ways, to be fired?"

Walmart

The retail giant is very specific about Twitter usage, albeit brief.

  • While many of our 2.2 million associates around the world are using Twitter and other social networks, all official Walmart Twitter users will be identified on this landing page and will have a link back to this page from their Twitter profile.
  • Unless otherwise noted, U.S.-based Walmart approved Twitter users will follow the following naming conventions of “business unit + name/category.” For example, “walmartmeeting,” “samsclubrobert,” and “walmartgames.”
  • We won’t reply to off topic @replies. Personal attacks and foul language = FAIL. Adding to the discussion = WIN.
  • @replies should contribute to the dialogue. Please support any claims with links to sources whenever possible. We love opinions. We love it even more when you back them up.

Smith says that unlike Best Buy, Walmart's policy seems very hands-off in terms of relating to customers and doesn't provide much guidance to the actual staff. Conversely, Johnson thinks it’s just right. "Because it's external, it offers service to the customer. It provides value and helps customers find out whom they can connect with on Twitter for help." However Johnson agrees it doesn't do much to help employees, except letting them know not to reply to things that might be out of scope for them.

Ford

The head of Social Media Scott Monty offered this list to Fast Company.

1.Be honest about who you are

2.Make it clear that the views expressed are yours

3.You speak for yourself, but your actions represent those of Ford Motor Company

4.Use your common sense

5.Play nice

6.The Internet is a public space

7.The Internet remembers (i.e., "Whatever happens in Vegas...stays on Google.")

8.An official repsonse may be needed

9.Respect the privacy of offline conversations

10.Same rules and laws apply: new medium, no surprise

11.When in doubt, ask

Smith says the simplicity is akin to Zappos' two-point policy: "Be real and use your best judgment,” yet Johnson says these eleven points shouldn't stand alone. "It needs context,” explains Johnson, "It's not clear whether play nice means don't use offensive language and don't be a jerk, or if it means something else."

Time Warner Cable

Here is one part of the document they sent us.

TWC employees are individually responsible for the content they publish online, including:

  • blogs, wikis, forums, Twitter, Facebook and any other form of user-generated media. Items posted online will likely be indexed by search engines and copied by other sites, so it can remain public and associated with you even if the original post is deleted. Post with care.
  • Follow copyright, fair use and financial disclosure laws.
  • Don't publish confidential or other proprietary information—of TWC or of any other company or person. If you want to post or report on a conversation that was meant to be private or internal to TWC, first seek permission from those originally involved.
  • Don't cite or reference clients, partners or suppliers without their prior approval. When a reference is made, where possible, link back to the source.
  • When communicating online, behave professionally and with the utmost respect for those individuals involved in the discussion. Ethnic slurs, personal insults, foul language, or conduct that would not be acceptable in TWC’s workplace should not be used.
  • Use the web to find out who else is blogging or publishing on a topic of particular interest and cite those individuals, including links to their work.
  • On social networks where you identify yourself as an employee of TWC, be mindful that the content posted will be visible to coworkers, customers and partners. Make sure the information posted is the most professional reflection of your opinions and beliefs.
  • Refrain from engaging in heated discussion and use good judgment when expressing opinions that may pose a potential conflict. Do not post angry comments or attack individuals engaging in the discussion.
  • Observe generally accepted online publishing standards. Do not alter previous posts without indicating that you have done so.
  • Strive to add accurate and factual information to the conversation. Offer good writing and
  • informed perspective that are backed up with well-researched links.
  • Do not insult or disparage TWC, its products and services, or any fellow employees, even if specific names are not mentioned.
  • It is entirely possible that you will come across frustrated customers on websites other than TWC’s, and will want to help them by using knowledge or accessing tools available
  • Refrain from discussing specifics about work-related matters—situations, names of people or any other information that would allow someone to identify people, technical details etc., and to reiterate, never discuss confidential information related to TWC. A good rule of thumb is that if an employee is uncomfortable sharing a piece of content with a member of management or will be embarrassed seeing it posted in The New York Times, then the content should not be posted. Take the time to do that gut check before hitting "Post."

Pennington appreciates that the entire policy explicitly recognizes the significance of social media during and outside of working hours. "The most remarkable aspect of the policy is the immediate focus on social media as a tool for listening and learning, a significant, untapped opportunity for most companies. They also seem to recognize who is ultimate in control—the creator, not the company."

 

The BBC

There are two employee policies. A 10-page tome on the professional use of social networking, microblogging, and other third party websites, and another on the same topic for personal use.

Smith crows, “This is an exceptional policy! Extremely thorough, they've left no stone unturned and I would imagine to any new employee, for example, they'd know exactly how to conduct themselves in various social sites around the web.”

Easter Seals

The lone nonprofit among all the corporate entities in this group, has some pretty straightforward guidelines including be respectful and protect your privacy. Pennington believes the solid focus on purpose and responsibilities provides a clear track for involvement. "They present we may edit or delete your stuff in a respectful way," he adds. Johnson is non-plussed. "It doesn't go above and beyond. Just deals with the basics. But nice to see that nonprofits are putting these types of policies in place and into action."

 


 

The takeaway? Social media guidelines are more prevalent and important than ever, but there is little consistency in the policies. Smith says that the complexity of a corporate social media policy depends on the robustness of the corporate culture. She believes Zappos is the best example of because its hiring process is so stringent and every employee adheres to the company's 10 core values.

Johnson offers, "And though I realize that policies are not educational documents -- guidelines are. And that's what's missing from a lot of them listed, actual guidelines. How to do it, where, why -- with examples."

How does your company's social media policy compare? Send examples to ideas@fastcompany.com.

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • Thomas McCraw

    I guess if she had tweeted her support for Obama she would not have been fired. Just saying there are two standards going on here.

  • Wanda Selzer

    Funny a 'news veteran' thinks media is 'neutral' except for Fox News. You apparently aren't very well informed for a 'news' person. You should get outside your circle of 'like minds' and see whats going on out there. Laughable.

  • Patti Breckenridge

    One element that many commenting on CNN's social media policy are forgetting is that unlike non-journalism organizations, it must encompass a journalist's responsibilities to remain objective. Non-journalistic organizations are not empowered by the First Amendment as are news organizations. This is a critical difference. The social media policy of a news oganization must reflect that difference.

  • Beth Warren

    Great article.. provides some great information for organizations looking to build their own policies

  • Ken Gullette

    There is nothing wrong at all with CNN's policy. As a news veteran, I completely agree with their position. After all, if we wanted reporters to take a stand publicly on issues, we can turn to Fox News.

    Good journalists, on the other hand, have a responsibility to be neutral.

  • Ekaterina Walter

    A great article! Thank you for including Intel in your list. As a Social Media Strategist at Intel I am proud of all the great things our social media practitioners across the company are doing to contribute to our success.

    Ekaterina Walter
    Social Media Center of Excellence

  • Kelly Monroe

    Policy and restrictions are being decided everyday by IT managers. The security of company networks are at stake but the potential for innovation using social media is a large enough carrot for the discussion of how to properly utilize the medium continues. Palo Alto networks came up with a whitepaper, http://bit.ly/d2NZRp, which will explore the issues surrounding social media in the workplace. It is important to not only understand the immediate benefits of doing business how one lives, but the threat it presents to a company's greater ROI and productivity when it comes to the server's safety and security.

  • Trey Pennington

    Thanks Lydia.

    These are challenging times for big business for sure. No doubt there were similarly challenging times around the transition from an agrarian world economy to the industrial age. It seems like folks in those times had a little longer to make the transition and fewer people bird-dogging them and commenting on the transition. (Didn't THAT revolution take place beginning in the 1700s? When did we "transition" and end child labor in the USA? Early 1900s? Imagine if there had been bloggers and tweeters widely connected in 1750!)

    Instead of having 200+ years to adjust to a revolution, our businesses are dealing with the same or even greater magnitude of "revolution," and it seems like they have so little time and so little room to deal with it. That makes the work that Scott Monty (LOVE your title Scott), BestBuy, TWC, and even CNN are doing to adjust to the revolution even more remarkable.

  • scottmonty

    FYI, Ford does have context around all of these. We're finalizing the approval process to post them publicly in the next couple of weeks. The eleven points I shared are merely the takeaways.

    Scott Monty
    Global Digital Communications
    Ford Motor Company

  • Lynne d Johnson

    Scott

    I figured there had to be more to it than that considering how emerged you guys are in a social media practice. Looking forward to seeing those.