This week, ESPN, a US sports cable TV network, appeared to tell its employees that they could no longer use Twitter except to Tweet about ESPN. A few hours later it turned out that things were not quite so simple as ESPN released its internal social media policy. Whist perhaps a little direct in its choice of wording and phrases, this policy is a good example of what every firm should have.

Perhaps the biggest threat to a firm in their use of social media is to not have a policy about it. To not have guidelines for your staff and to not know how you expect people to behave. Most firms will have policies about how employees should behave both in and out of work. About how they shouldn’t discuss the detail of work that they are doing out of work, or how they can’t earn additional money doing certain things out of office hours. And there are sensible reasons for this. Employees represent the firm they work for, and they also should not act to either to discredit the firm or to take business away from the firm. If you work selling fruit then it would be unreasonable for you to set up stall outside the shop selling goods from your own garden. If you work selling your thoughts on sporting events, the logic perhaps goes, it is unreasonable for you to do this elsewhere.

Of course employees’ use of social media is not as simple as this. We are looking at a new medium which is letting people communicate in new ways. It is like the conversation with a friend in a cafe, just taken to new levels, reaching more people and being significantly more shareable. This should be a risk for all firms. We don’t need reminding of the examples where employees have posted a video that has embarrassed their employer, or a Facebook status that has lost them their job. Firms need a policy on social media and part of this policy should be guidelines for their staff. It’s not about banning them, as the ESPN story suggested, just about being sensible, as the ESPN policy actually is.

The core elements of ESPN’s policy are sensible and could be of use to most firms:

  • Don’t run your own websites or blogs that talk about sports content – this is not to be unexpected for a business that produces sports content. They should, however, make sure they are harnessing any enthusiastic employees and giving them a platform to write their own thoughts in a place that benefits ESPN too, such as an ESPN blog
  • You are representatives of ESPN even out of working hours – this is a sensible policy that most firms have already had – to remind people that even when they are not at work people will see them as representing the firm and so they shouldn’t do anything to discredit it
  • Show respect for your colleague and for fans – in this case the fans are the customers and it is sensible to remind people not to embarrass or otherwise harm either them or fellow colleagues
  • Content posted by employees needs to conform to ESPN editorial guidelines – it is difficult if employees talk about things in one way at work and another out of work but both are visible and shareable on the web
  • Do not discuss internal policies, processes, decisions or debates – what goes on in the office, stays in the office and some things probably shouldn’t be shared.

These points include the basics that any firm should consider when it is drawing up its own social media policy. But perhaps the biggest danger is not to have one at all.

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