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Anatomy of a Social Media Policy

“I need your help!” he wailed over the phone. “An employee of ours just posted a YouTube video with really negative comments about our company. What do we do?”


Over the past 24 months, my phone rings on an almost daily basis with clients, colleagues and friends in a panic about something to do with social media. That led me to start working with organizations to help them develop and then roll out social media policies for their organizations. Through researching and reading over 150 social media policies for corporations, hospitals, universities and non-profit organizations and helping my clients develop their own organizational policies, here’s what I’ve learned:


One size does not fit all


A hospital needs a very different social media policy than a literacy organization. The size and scope of the organization will determine, in part, the characteristics of its social media policy. There are however, some common characteristics.


Focus on personal responsibility 


What an individual posts on line is ultimately his or her responsibility. Privacy settings may not be as secure as people assume and developers of social media platforms reserve the right to modify their global settings at any time. The bottom line is that individuals, not organizations, are responsible for their online activity. This is true in print, in video and in photos.


Understanding the permanency of a digital footprint


Employees need to know that what they post on line leaves a digital footprint, even if they modify or delete it. Others can capture your online activity using screen shots or video capturing software. Drawing awareness to the permanency of online activity helps employees understand the risks of posting angry videos, drunk photos or angry rants. This goes hand-in-hand with personal responsibility.


Reputation management


Along with the permanency of a digital foot print goes the management of personal and organizational reputation through the use of social media. Employees need to be aware that they may be “Googled” by their current or future employeers. It is 


Representing the organization

Employees represent an organization whether they are on or off duty. In today’s world, “clocking out” is a figurative phrase. It is not that organizations “own” their employees, but rather that, when it comes to social media, the lines between where work ends and where personal life begins can become blurred. Employees need to be aware that they represent the company wherever they go. Some companies are beginning to write into their terms of employment that new hires must agree to represent the company in a positive light in social media. Including it in the organization’s social media policy is becoming common, too. Employees may need coaching on how to share meaningful information in a positive way.


Encourage honesty and transparency


Employees are people and people are what drive social media. If a company folds, its website, Facebook page, Twitter account and other social media dry up and fizzle out (while still leaving a digital footprint, of course). Social media is all about real people connecting in honest, sincere, helpful ways.


Encourage a conversational tone


Social media is about being, well, social. Organizations that hyper-focus on policing their employees or producing only content written in sterile “corporate speak” are less likely to have successful social media engagement. Employees are encouraged to be interactive, conversational, respectful and professional, all at the same time.


Avoid spamming


This includes two parts. Internal spamming is when an employee blasts out requests to organization-wide lists that he is selling cookies for his child’s soccer team. External spamming is when an employee sends out mass emails on behalf of the organization. External communications to a mass audience should be handled by the communications department or the individual in charge of communications.


Respect others


It may seem like common sense, but making it an organizational policy to respect others when in social media and other electronic spaces helps an organization eliminate workplace bullying, harassment and abuse. Organizational social media policies should, at the very least, align themselves with the law and prohibit interactions that are illegal, libelous or harassing. Including a process to deal with unexpected situations or circumstances where one person feels offended and another says, “It was only a joke!” make it clear to employees that they are expected to act respectfully at all times.




Organizations need to be very clear what is and is not considered confidential information. Content relating to internal labour negotiations or grievance cases that are in process and not yet resolved could negatively impact the outcome of the situation. Similarly, intellectual property, ongoing research and product development are also areas to be addressed. Employees need to be made aware that certain documents are for internal use only and should never be shared in a public space.


Discourage disputes


Arguments are best had face-to-face. The chances for misunderstandings and the escalation of emotion are much greater on line. Social media policies often discourage disputes between individuals, as well as large-scale disputes. There have been more and more cases recently about employees using Facebook and Twitter accounts to mobilize themselves around labour disputes. This creates a tricky situation for representatives on both sides of a negotiating table. At the very least, discussions should be kept internal, using password protected intranet sites. It is inappropriate to post internal disputes on public sites. It is up to the company to make this clear with its employees, as well as any unions they work with.


When in doubt, leave it out


Employees need to be encouraged to trust their own judgement. If they are questioning whether or not to post something online, then the answer is probably no, don’t do it. Social media policies are as much about developing good digital citizens as they are about policing them. In fact, truly effective policies strike a balance between discipline and freedom.


Avoid irrelevancy


Content should relate to the company, its activities and its employees, as well as include useful industry information, upcoming events and other content related to the day-to-day business and purpose of the organization. Employees can ask themselves questions such as “Is this relevant to 75% or more of the entire organization?” before posting to internal sites.


Time allocation


Organizations need to be clear about whether they will allow employees to post on social media during work hours or whether this is to be saved for coffee breaks and lunches. If posting is allowed during business hours, setting limits on how much time is becoming more common in social media policies. Posting should not interfere with meeting deadlines or getting the work done.


Consequences and discipline


While a collaborative approach to using social media is ideal, organizations also need to out line how they will deal with infractions and inappropriate online behaviour. This is tricky because the range of what can be defined as “inappropriate” varies widely. Nevertheless, making it clear to employees that what they do online may have consequences. Organizations are developing plans and processes to proactively deal with situations when they arise. Prevention and intervention processes are also considered as part of social media policies.


Seek permission and ask for help


When in doubt, ask. Organizations are beginning to develop processes that allow employees to ask an internal advisor whether something is allowed to be shared on social media or not. Having a process whereby employees can ask questions helps to build positive communications in the workplace. Due to the immediate nature of social media, employees need a clear, reasonable answer quickly. This is not a process that can be put through a committee that meets on a quarterly, or even a weekly basis. Answers are needed swiftly.

Join The Conversation

  • saraheaton's picture
    Oct 22 Posted 5 years ago saraheaton

    Thanks for picking up on that typo. :-) I've fixed it now. I work in Canada and in the last Federal election, SM was a hot topic. We have media blackouts in the east, until after voting in the west is done. This is to prevent too much influence on undecided voters. Canadians can be fined up to $25,000 for breaking the law on that. In the last election, Canadians texted friends and family outside Canada and thousands of Tweets poured in from the US, UK, Australia and other places. Canadians didn't have to put themselves at risk... and it is not like our government was going to fine people in other countries. SM is quickly changing how we "do" politics.

  • saraheaton's picture
    Oct 22 Posted 5 years ago saraheaton

    Great points, Art. The smaller the organization, the less you need to worry about policy, not only for SM, but in other areas, too. You have a conversation about what works and why you do it and move forward. As an organization grows, policies and procedures become more important to capture the values and expectations of the owners / managers. Sounds like you are approaching SM in all the right ways.

  • Oct 21 Posted 5 years ago Ruth Patton (not verified)

    Best typo ever! "Posting should not interfere with meeting deadliness or getting the work done." Trust me, nothing gets in the way of meeting deadliness at my place of business! ;)

    Social media policies get even trickier when you work for a 501(c)(3) influencing public policy, given IRS rules against engaging in election-related activities. The usual trick of listing all candidates for an office as a way to avoid allegations of political interviention doesn't work for Facebook. Even if you "liked" all the candidates, since Facebook shows a random selection of "likes" on a profile page, a person might perceive the organizaiton as support for that candidate. It seems the more conservative approach, the better.

  • Oct 21 Posted 5 years ago Matt Hodkinson (not verified)

    Great from a protective standpoint, Sarah, and there's nothing wrong with instilling a healthy fear of reprisal.  But shouldn't a progressive SM Policy be as much about incentivising staff to be the ones creating positive buzz around the brand, too?  Too many companies turn to marketing agencies, where the best Ambassadors and marketers-in-prospect are already working within the business.  For me, a hollistic policy would include forward-thinking ways of ensuring improved positioning across SM.

  • Oct 20 Posted 5 years ago Art Wilding (not verified)

    Social media has helped The Franchise Mall connect with many new clients and resources.  We are a small company of only 2 employees. We do not have the resource of a person specifically assigned to social media. We cannot spend the time on social media that a person specifically assigned to social media would be expected to do. We are grateful for the resource of social media and the connections we have made, through LinkedIn, Twitter and recently Facebook. I read some of "the rules" and how to do it right. Mainly I just connect, follow, tweet and retweet thinking that somewhere in this, I have helped someone else as much as we have been rewarded. The benefits far outweigh the little bit of negativity.


  • Courtney Hunt's picture
    Oct 20 Posted 5 years ago Courtney Hunt

    The question of "social media policies" is far more complicated than many organizatinal leaders realize. Earlier this year I wrote a post entitled "Social Media Policies: Necessary but Not Sufficient," which provides context, examples, and primary considerations. It's a nice complement to this piece for folks who want more in-depth coverage. Here's a link:

    Courtney Hunt - Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community 

  • Oct 18 Posted 5 years ago Rogier Noort (not verified)

    Hi Sara...

    Mostly the policy makers spend time on deduping and clarifying stuff... I made a list of what I perceived as mandatory to make the list and wrote that in. Tried to keep it a tad friendly as to not discourage the use of social media.

    In 2012 we'll add a physical campaign (only within a company of 220 people) to emphasize the policy. Posters, presentations and perhaps a video.

    Ah.., now I get the question.., no.., it still has to be officially approved, but that is just a formality. I will keep an eye on it and after the campaign we'll see how the employees perceived it.


  • saraheaton's picture
    Oct 17 Posted 5 years ago saraheaton

    Thanks for the comment, Rogier. If your organization has a social media policy already, you are miles ahead of many that still struggle with this. Glad to hear that yours is comprehensive. Have you had to tweak or revise it since you developed it?

  • Oct 17 Posted 5 years ago Rogier Noort (not verified)

    Sorry for the "cubbies" code.., I uninstalled that particular Firefox AddOn...

  • Oct 17 Posted 5 years ago Rogier Noort (not verified)

    Very nice, complete and informative list.

    It is good to see our up and coming policy covers pretty much all, in one form or another. But it is always good to reflect.

    img, #cubbies-overlay{ -moz-transition-property: margin, box-shadow, z-index; -moz-transition-duration: 0.1s; -webkit-transition-property: margin, box-shadow, z-index; -webkit-transition-duration: 0.1s; } .cubbies-selected{ z-index: 9999; box-shadow: 3px 3px 8px -1px blue !important; cursor: pointer !important; margin: -3px 3px 3px -3px; } .cubbies-selected:active{ box-shadow: 2px 2px 5px -1px darkblue !important; margin: -1px 1px 1px -1px; } #cubbies-overlay{ position: fixed; z-index: 9999; bottom: 30px; left: 30px; box-shadow: 0 2px 3px rgba(0,0,0,0.8); border: none; } #cubbies-overlay:hover{ box-shadow: 0 2px 3px rgb(0,0,0); }

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