Last week, the Washington Post’s Managing Editor Raju Narisetti sent out a memo to all of the paper’s employees entitled "responding to readers via social media" in which he effectively bans reporters, editors and assorted hangers-on from engaging directly with the Post’s considerable Twitter following.
The memo came after a controversial article implying a link between homosexuality and mental illness was published in the Post and rightly lambasted by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). In the ensuing kerfuffle, a Post editor responded to critics via the company Twitter account, claiming that the paper was “trying to represent both sides of the story”.
Whether or not there actually are two sides to this story is not for me to comment on here, but the reaction by Narisetti highlights the continuing misunderstanding and misapplication of social media policy by many large companies.
According to the Post’s own guidelines, staff should be encouraged to use social media platforms in order to promote content and increase engagement, but according to the memo:
No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social-media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.
So, that’s customer engagement out the window then.
These knee-jerk reactions are avoidable with the implementation of a proper social policy, and while it would be nice to think that an organization like The Washington Post would be able to rely on some common sense in cases like this, it appears there is still room for mistakes to be made.
As a business owner, you may be nervously dipping a toe into the social waters or you may have already flung yourself in at the deep end, but in these cases, a blanket ban is not the way forward.
Social media is an open book
Thanks to the proliferation of mobile and multiple accounts, social media interaction will continue apace whether management endorses it or not, and while it is possible to track down someone posting the ‘wrong kind of tweet’, this is usually a case of locking the barn once the horse has bolted.
Instead, it’s more effective for managers to focus social media monitoring internally and follow up any slips with suitable, open commentary.
Ideally, social interaction should be open to all employees, but just letting the tweets and posts fly can lead to its own problems as well.
Ask most IT or senior management professionals, and they’ll tell you that it’s up to individual employees to toe the line on social media platforms, but recent figures from Ponemon show that the majority of staff never consider the security or brand consequences of their online activities, and a lack of clear leadership and enforcement only adds to the muddle.
Keep calm and stay in control.
So, how do you monitor and enforce a social policy without banning communication outright?
As with most things, it’s about finding the proper balance.
A clearly laid out policy is your first port of call, clearly stating exactly what is and isn’t acceptable, and you must take time to distinguish between branded and personal accounts.
In my opinion, a personal account is exactly that and should remain separate (you won’t find the official @Econsultancy twitter endlessly bleating about Star Wars for starters), but you should be prepared to take action if rules aren’t followed or if an employee (or ex-employee) is engaging in deliberately provocative or damaging behaviour.
Enforcing your policy is a three-fold process.
Monitor inside and out
Firstly, you’ll need to turn ensure that your social monitoring program is focused internally as well as externally.
You should already be running a dedicated listening station, searching out various brand mentions and hashtags as they appear. There are literally hundreds of programs and apps to help you with this, and you can make things easier by sorting staff into dedicated twitter lists and Facebook groups so that you can easily see what comes from your own staff and send a (politely worded) memo to anyone who’s strayed off course.
In most cases a quick reminder is more than enough to get things back on track.
Check and double check
If you’re still worried, then it may be worth considering a review policy, checking posts before they are placed.
This practice can be particularly useful for companies dealing with large amounts of private or sensitive data, but if you do decide this is the safest bet then make sure you have the staff in place to carry this out; otherwise you’ll risk an unnecessary and annoying time-lag.
A large part of the appeal of social is its agility, and there’s no point in replying to someone on Twitter three days after they’ve mentioned you.
There are a number of dedicated data loss prevention tools available from companies like Smartsoft and Symantec which can help you to automate this process, providing you with granular filter control over which information is posted.
Map daily usage
Finally, I would never advise restricting internet access within a company, but it is possible to use proxy tracking to map out employees daily use patterns.
If you have a lot of private data and feel that they are spending an unusually high amount of time on FTP sites for example, then you may need to follow up or check connecting IP’s.
Of course, all this talk of security lapses, private data breaches and potential brand damage may sound like scaremongering, but it’s important to keep in mind that in the vast majority of cases this is simply a small HR issue.
You already have policies in place covering information that can be given out directly by phone or email, and this is a simple extension of those rules.
Of course you might be concerned that having your entire staff plugged into Twitter all day may reduce productivity, but most people simply do not work like that. They’ll use Twitter and check Facebook occasionally for five minutes, and then they’ll continue to work.
Being too draconian in your methods will simply annoy staff, who will then carry on using the sites from their phone instead.
The real risk to your business is in missing out on the marketing benefit of social media, and being out of step with a competitive marketplace, so take time to find the balance between control and collaboration, inform staff of your intentions and make sure you clearly define what you consider appropriate both in and out of the office.