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Do Employees Need Social Media Guidelines?

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:

True confession but i’m in one of those towns where I scratch my head and say “I would die if I had to live here!”

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?

Comments

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Not sure that you really need "social media guidelines for employees",, so much as social media guidelines. It's that audience knowledge that many find difficult; regardless of whether you're tweeting about your boss, your current work activities, where you are, what you did last night in the pub - or putting it in Facebook or whereever - it's ensuring that people know who the audience is - and then how to set things to be hidden, if that's what you want.
In many ways, I see Social Media as a whole as being like a local community was maybe 100 years ago. Then, the whole street/ village knew what you were up to - and you knew who was in the village. Now, people could know what you're up to - but you don't really know who's in the village. That's the difference. We're just coming out of an interim phase when few people knew their neighbours & social networking wasn't - so people got used to a level of privacy that didn't exist in the past & seems, at present, to be unlikely to exist in the future.

Hmm, Emma--Never really thought about this issue of how we may be coming back full circle to a time when there was no such thing as "privacy," at least not on the scale that we became used to. Big difference, as you point out, is that we can't keep tabs on who's actually in our "village" this time around. That makes it so much more difficult because you can more easily find yourself offending people. At least in the village you lived in, you had a decent understanding of the mores of your group. But in the global village, being culturally competent becomes a much bigger challenge.

Guidelines might be a good idea, not really much different than "netiquette" guides for email. It's one thing to have to apologize to a someone for a hasty and ill thought response to an email, but when your audience is the world you might get bitten at a time and from a direction you don't expect!

I've been thinking about social media and work quite a bit lately. When I began blogging not long ago, I thought my blog would more personal than it is. Yesterday, I signed up for Twitter and expect it to professional not personal.
I'm wondering how to use social media with my high school students; I'd like them to use Twitter as a kind of digital writer's notebook. But I'm a bit nervous. Thoughts?

Guidelines:
1. Don't be stupid.
2. See #1.

Rule of Thumb - remember online is forever and mostly you will be fine.

It is very easy for people to misinterpret or get the wrong impression what you are saying when using text only. When a person reads your blog how they interpret what you have said depends on how long they have been interacting with you.

Twitter is extreme blogging. Main differences are the personal aspect is even more important than normal blogging for creating the connections. Perhaps it is more likely for misinterpretations?

@Nancy Whilst I'm at twitterholic I'm not totally convinced that Twitter is the place for our school students - perhaps worth considering other forms of microblogging?

Nancy,
You should check out edmodo for microblogging designed for teachers and students. might be a better fit for your needs.

I notice some of the comments at James Andrew's blog are along the lines of "Stuff happens, whatever." I think it reflects a different attitude towards online information by digital natives.

The point is who hasn't said something stupid on the Internet? For older folks, the answer may be, no, but for younger people, if it's not one thing it's another. Andrews pleads for people to understand context and that rings true for younger folks I think--obviously I'm old.

But the other side of context that is not understood so well by old folks like me, is how responsible people who've been communicating online since they were teens feel about knowing what they put up will affect friends of friends of friends. A faux pas doesn't rate as such a big deal. But not being generous with your gifts, a stinginess of heart and people will ignore you.

Reactions to this event reveal a generation/experience gap.

This is great feedback everyone--thank you! And thank you Dan for pointing Nancy in the direction of emodo. I agree with both you and Sue that Twitter may not be the best option for student sharing or a writer's notebook. I'd actually vote for Tumblr myself because I know that inspiration can come from many places and Tumblr is a great tool for also being able to comment on video, photos, etc. I suppose it depends on how you're using your writer's notebook.

John, you bring up an interesting point about the generational differences. I tend to agree with you that there is a divide, similar to some of the conversations I've seen about supposed faux pas on Facebook. Boomers are appalled at certain things, while Gen Y is fine. Then again, maybe by the time Gen Y is the age of the Boomers, they'll be appalled too. After all, the Boomers ushered in the Summer of Love, so hard to believe that their sensibilities could be THAT offended by certain things. Maybe it's a function of becoming more conservative about certain things as we get older.

Kia ora Michele

Sue Waters' point is so deep - I think that awareness of the consequences of misinterpretability of public material, however it is displayed and by whichever means it is delivered, is one that would benefit so many. If it did nothing else than make people think about what they post in public, other than just the content of their post/comment/tweet/display/etc, it would benefit them. 'Cybersafety' (in schools and workplace) should address this.

As for appropriateness. That's another interpretation altogether - and this is where I am often in a quandary when I think about this.

What do we mean by appropriate? And who decides what is appropriate or not? And can we provide guidelines for that? We've had this conversation before :-)


P.S. I've been enjoying the ease of your new comment writing procedure - I don't get timed out any more either!

Catchya later

I guess with social media etiquette you would hope that participants would use their common sense. The only problem with that theory is that sometimes it ain't that common:)

I work in an organisation of 700-odd employees and they can get a little 'rowdy' with their etiquette on our forums, but generally they are very well behaved.

What I find is, and I can't remember who made mention of the 'self-regulating social community' (either yourself or Harold) after the Work Literacy prof dev course on web 2.0; they tend to self-regulate very well letting their colleagues know whats appropriate or not.

Unfortunately our forums are an extension of our workplace, so we sometimes have to remind participants that all workplace policies apply (especially to minimise exposure to the legal ramifications of any proven bullying or harrasment issues). The organisation has to cover it's 'butt', but the self-regualtion usually does the trick.

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