Social media governance: the new communications battle field

If you haven’t come across the term ‘social media governance’ you’re about to hear the term a whole lot more. 

We define it as ‘polices and procedures created and enforced to govern the use of social media by people who are directly employed, officially affiliated or otherwise authorised to represent an organisation.’  

It’s about making sure the people who are paid to represent your company (staff, contractors, some strategic suppliers etc) don’t create legal, brand or commercial problems by misusing social media, either deliberately or accidentally.

In the same way that companies have employment agreements and computer usage and mobile phone use agreements to ensure they protect their business and the welfare of their staff, there is a very small (but fast-growing) trend of also implementing social media usage policies to improve social media governance.


Clearly it’s to stop people wrecking the place.  But is it that simple?  At one level yes, at another no. 

Obviously if you Tweet that your company’s biggest client is run by a nincompoop, and your client reads that Tweet … well you can join the dots.  Your firm may be issued with a ‘please explain’ note and you may receive a ‘pack your belongings in a card board box’ memo.  Don’t laugh, it’s happened. 

What if you post a few friendly Facebook pics of you and the rest of your work team doing tequila shots at a local bar after a sales kickoff event?   Not so bad?  What if one of your work team is not happy about the invasion of privacy and takes it to HR? 

What if you use FourSquare to check in to a cafe every day for a week?  What if it is where you’re meeting a major prospect to close a deal?  What if a former colleague, now a competitor, is connected to you in LinkedIn and works out what’s going on at the cafe (which happens to be next door to a very well known and kind of obvious potential customer)?

What if you get a new job and the first thing you do is update your LinkedIn profile – before your new employer has time to position your appointment with their own team and clients?

I could go on.  Let’s not even start on harassment, confidentiality breaches and calling in sick when your Tweets would indicate you’re actually enjoying a day at the races.

Well, common sense would say that in the most serious cases, there are grounds for instant dismissal or at least major reprimands.  And certainly some of the things I have mentioned would constitute violations of the law and the choice of media really has no bearing on the procedures for dealing with it. 

The problem comes from the many grey areas, some of which I’ve highlighted. 

And it gets more complicated if those breaches occur when people are using online identities which are not work related (ie their personal Twitter account, their Facebook accounts (and they don’t disclose where they work).   The argument, (and I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know how these defences are going to stack up in various state and territories) is basically that what people do on their own time, in their own social networks, with their own equipment, provided they don’t say where they work, is pretty much up them.  Or is it?  Ask most people and opinion is evenly split at the moment.  It’s the blurring of ‘private’ and ‘company’.

The problem is, as I see it, this.  How hard is it to work out where someone works?  And if you can make that connection with just the most basic of forensic searching then is the person now actually breaching their various work obligations.  

Well clearly you can’t set up a personal email account and start posting sensitive documents you stole from your company without breaking the law or your employment agreement.  But what if you’re a voracious blogger and are commenting negatively about an issue that would seem to be quite clearly related to where you work?  Even if you removed the name to protect the guilty?

What if your company doesn’t know that your co-worker keeps posting pictures on their personal Facebook site of you at work-sponsored events, along with disparaging comments?

You can see how messy it’s getting.  So of course the answer is to kill off social media use in the workplace altogether.  Which I guess would work fine if people didn’t have smart phones and computers at home and thought that their personal social networks had nothing to do with where they worked …

Trust me, lawyers around the world are girding their loins (always wanted to use that in a sentence) and preparing the way for a new era of litigation and law making.  And we’d all better be ready for what’s coming.  HR managers are scrambling for advice, compliance and risk teams are trying to understand the possible impacts and how to mitigate them and everyone else is waiting for the legal precedents to be made – and hoping it’s not going to be them who are the test cases.

What’s our advice?

Well, as best as we can figure (now anyway), it would seem prudent to create a social media policy that outlines what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to how your representatives use social media.  Clearly you can’t over-ride workplace laws and other regulations, but you can still explain how people’s existing commitments in their employment agreements or other contracts extend to the use of social media.  Just joining the dots for people is sometimes an eye opener. 

Second, make sure people are given the policy to read and sign  Don’t add it to the HR portal and hope people notice it.

Third, train people in best-practice use of social media, particularly tools like LinkedIn.  Most employees and contractors want to use social media properly and will value training on how to get the most out of the tools they already use.  Equally, most people also want to know what NOT to do when it comes to using social media networks. 

If you have a policy, offer training and support, then not only will you reduce your organisation’s exposure generally to misguided postings and poor online behaviour, you will empower your teams to start using social media to support your marketing, sales and customer relations objectives. 

The reality is, many employees are already doing this ‘under the radar’ (and often quite well), but it’s critical that organisations start grabbing this by the horns and not the tail and implement informed social media governance programs.

If you’d like some more information about the kind of work that Recognition PR does around social media governance audits, program and policy development and training, you can contact us at:

Adam Benson
02 9252 2266