What Is Your Corporate Policy?

by Jay Deragon on 01/06/2009

commstrategyAs more and more businesses migrate to the use of social media the proverbial question of legal risk raises its ugly head. Legal concerns of uncontrolled employee participation, disclosure of private corporate information and related matters causes corporate legal departments to raise concerns about controlling communications in public forums.

According to Lauren Gelman, associate director of the Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, it’s all about control. “Employers aren’t happy that employees have this new ability to speak about the workplace and about their employers to the world,” said Gelman. “No longer do the public relations departments have the sole avenue of communication as to what the company message is.”

Subsequently we’re seeing the appearance of new corporate policies relative to use of “social technology” on company time and specifically as it relates to using social media to achieve specific corporate objectives. According to The Blog Council’s research, 64 (12.8%) of the Fortune 500 are blogging. Open the link below to see their table which lists these companies, a sampling of their blogs, and links to Fortune 500 business blog reviews. You can discuss this wiki on Twitter at the Tweetworks Group Fortune500BusinessBlogs. John Cass is currently the volunteer community organizer for the Fortune 500 Business Blogging Wiki.

Which Risk Are The Greatest?

Having a corporate policy concerning use of social media is a means to mitigating legal risk however not understanding and managing the related factors can actually create more risk not covered in a corporate policy. There are several factors that influence the ultimate risk of a transparent world fueled by social technology. These factors include:

  1. Corporate culture: Improving corporate culture is an ongoing process largely influenced by communications. If the current culture breeds distrust between management and employees social media can help a transformation or it can create further distrust. Management positions, actions, and communications relative to the use of social media will be the guide for the employees to determine whether the initiatives are truly “social” or another attempt to control employee opinions through spin. Trust is a sensitive issue.
  2. Educational Resources: Opening up your company to use of the multitude of social technologies without providing educational resources can be very dangerous. Using social technology is both an art and a science. Like any new technology using it effectively is a learning curve for all participants. The faster people learn the quicker the organization will realize optimal benefits. The landscape of social technology, its uses, new developments and best practices is an ongoing process which requires monitoring and communicating to those who will be participating.
  3. Message & Method Alignment: Traditional marketing methods and messages need to be in alignment or your organization will be ridiculed by the blogosphere. Don’t say or do one thing without the other saying and doing the same. The market of conversations looks for consistency in message and methods. Pushing a message verse engaging the market in a conversation can hurt your reputation and recovery takes time.
  4. Defining Strategic Objectives: It is important that businesses define the strategic objectives for using social media. Not having measurable objectives that relate, directly as well as indirectly, to specific business objectives will create the risk of wasting time, energy and money which reduces business optimization and shareholder value.
  5. Plan, Do, Check & Act: Having a corporate policy to mitigate legal liabilities is only part of the requirements of successfully using social media. Designing and executing a plan covering items 1-4 above plus incorporating measures to monitor impacts and being prepared to adjust your plan periodically reduces the ultimate risk of poor performance and negative reactions by your market.

So business leaders and their legal departments must go beyond simply creating a “corporate policy about the use of social media” and consider the “systemic risk” of not having the knowledge or resources to effectively manage all the “risk factors”. Which risk is greater? The legal issues or those outlined in 1 – 5 above?  Stating the rules is one thing but not understanding the spirit of the rule is another.

What say you?

PS: We’ve just completed a white paper titled “An Assessment of Social Media Policies & Practices”. If you’d like a copy just email me at [email protected]

{ 5 comments }

Kyle Lacy February 9, 2009 at 11:59 am

RT @Adgenius: Just requested Whitepaper: “An Assessment of Social Media Policies & Practices” by @JDeragon http://tinyurl.com/8m2noy

John Dierckx January 9, 2009 at 7:53 am

I truly liked the white paper if only because it outlines what I see regularly: that there is no clear view in many businesses on what the social web exactly entails and therefore what it may do for your business. This seems to be reflected in the way the social web appears to be reduced to the blogo sphere for the companies discussed. Whilst I would agree that blogs are the most important feature, at least in my point of view, new technologies are opening up a wide range of other possibilities and with that opportunities (and risks including missed opportunities).

What strikes me further is that the policies provided, do not in any way address issues such as the use of APIs and other types of interfaces even though they have or can have substantial information security risks. This may of course very well be covered in other areas but in my view, this is not the best way to approach it if only because it will lead to fragmentation. Therefore I’d sooner opt for either adequate reference to other policies or specific clauses or overlap.

What strikes me is that those that have a policy are in general referring to common sense and with that place trust in their employees. This is exactly the cultural shift was talking about.
At the same time security threats can not be discarded and that is where things appear out of balance and in my line of work I have seen all the bad examples imaginable.

What would probably interest me more is to see not necessarily blog policies for employees but blog or better yet social web strategies! These policies are all aimed at managing the risk but what will be the real challenge is identifying how the social web IS and WILL contribute to your business success including measurable goals and targets. It seems like there is more emphasis on managing the risk than opening up the opportunity.

Hope this helps a bit.

Cheers John

Hutch Carpenter January 6, 2009 at 11:13 am

You bring up an important observation about employee participation in social media. I’ll bet a lot of companies take a legalistic approach to this. I understand the impulse – they’re often the targets of too many lawsuits.

More generally, I think that companies setting guidelines for employees’ engaging in social media is one we’re going to see a lot more in 2009. 2008 ended with two huge companies – IBM, Intel – putting out social media guidelines for their employees ( http://bit.ly/17Isd ). Interestingly, those guidelines didn’t really have a significant legalistic tone to them. They were more along the lines of, “What you do is your responsibility. Here’s what we expect.”

Peter Fletcher January 6, 2009 at 7:19 am

RT @JDeragon What Is Your Corporate Policy? More and more corporation moving to the social web want governance => http://tinyurl.com/8m2noy

Rob van Alphen January 6, 2009 at 7:06 am

Just requested Whitepaper: “An Assessment of Social Media Policies & Practices” by @JDeragon http://tinyurl.com/8m2noy

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