I've written before about some of my thoughts regarding the responsible use of social media and whether or not we can count on people do the right thing when it comes to blogs and Facebook and Twitter. In general I tend to believe that if you can't trust your employees to behave appropriately on a social network, then you probably shouldn't be trusting them to go to meetings, answer phones or have customer contact in any way. On the issue of whether or not employee social media guidelines are necessary, I tend to believe that nothing new needs to be spelled out--behave in social media as you would in other professional arenas.
That said, this post on the way a Twitter post bit a VP in the butt has me thinking again about how the nature of social media, even for people who use it all the time, may still feel a little elusive and, therefore, provide ample opportunity for inadvertent screwing up. Long story short, a VP at a major marketing firm tweeted this message upon arriving in Memphis to meet with a major client--FedEx:
Apparently the VP forgot that employees from FedEx might be following him on Twitter. And in fact they were, prompting this email:
Many of my peers and I feel this is inappropriate. We do not know the total millions of dollars FedEx Corporation pays Ketchum annually for the valuable and important work your company does for us around the globe. We are confident however, it is enough to expect a greater level of respect and awareness from someone in your position as a vice president at a major global player in your industry. A hazard of social networking is people will read what you write. . .
true confession: many of my peers and I don’t see much relevance between your presentation this morning and the work we do in Employee Communications.
The thing with social media is that in some ways it can feel like our old ways of interacting. A Tweet can be the 140 character equivalent of an email or text message, seen only by your intended recipients. The problem is that the recipients of your social media communications are not always going to be an audience that you intended.
When I blog, I'm aware that anyone can read what I've written here, so I tend to be rather circumspect--or at least relatively thoughtful in terms of what I decide to post. But with some social media, like Twitter, it can be easy to forget that you're not just tweeting to a few friends. Unless you're actively blocking followers (which most of us don't' do because it somewhat defeats the purpose of Twitter) you can have people and connections going on that you're only dimly aware of. I have hundreds of people following me, but it's safe to say that I really only know a handful of them.
So back to the question of guidelines for the use of social media. I think that a lot more conversations need to take place at work about the nature of different types of tools--how a blog differs from Facebook, which is different from Twitter-- and how our behavior changes in sometimes subtle ways depending on the tool we are using.
Stories like what happened with this VP and his client, can be used as terrific fodder for exploring the responsible and effective uses of these tools. They should NOT be a lesson in "why we don't use Twitter." Rather, they can serve as great jumping off points for further discussion about how we walk the fine line between the personal and the professional, between transparency and circumspection.
In this case, we can learn not only about the things you don't do (like publicly insult a client's hometown), but also about the viral nature of social media and the impact it can have on your professional reputation. For example, if I do a Google Search on "Ketchum James Andrews", the fifth item on the list is a link to this debacle, followed by a number of other articles and posts on the same topic. Not good.
What are your thoughts on this? Do we need special social media guidelines for employees? If so, what do we need to emphasize and how do we work with employees to help them see what's "appropriate" and "inappropriate" for public forums?