‘Stop and think’ the best social media policy

Illustration courtesy of Bernard Goldbach on Flickr

Illustration courtesy of Bernard Goldbach on Flickr

Rob Swystun, Pristine Advisers

Confession time: I don’t call my mother nearly enough. (And you don’t call yours enough, either, by the way).

But here’s another confession that is more apropos of our subject: I was fired from a job for a rogue tweet.

There I was, several years ago, working a dead end job as a reporter at a small town newspaper on the prairies and the global economy had just gone into the toilet. The future seemed to be looking a bit grim from my point of view, is what I’m saying.

So it wasn’t exactly the best time for the editor of said small town newspaper to announce that we were all to get Twitter accounts ASAP. This mandate came from the head office of the company that owned that newspaper, along with several other newspapers in towns and cities across the country. Because I don’t want to name the company, let’s call this company “Company X” … no, how ‘bout “X Inc.” … Ooh, “X Media!” Yeah, we’ll call this company X Media. (Unrelated to any Google search results you come up with.)

So, to recap, I’m working at a small town newspaper owned by X Media, which has just handed down an order for all reporters to get Twitter accounts. These accounts were not to be connected with X Media. They were our own. We were just told to have them and use them … and that was all that we were told. This was a classic example of a company seeing a new(ish) technology sweeping the country and knowing that they should adopt its usage but not having a clue how to do it and not bothering to have a policy in place for it.

So, I had this account and I felt compelled to use the thing and I got about a dozen followers (the people at the paper where I worked and X Media’s official Twitter account among them). I mostly tweeted banal stuff (shocking for Twitter, I know) about the movies I watched or music or whatever.

But the disgruntled employee in me somehow got a hold of my Twitter password. (I think he threatened the nerd in me, who capitulated immediately). Remember the comment up there about the global economy having just gone into the toilet? Yeah, we had had our wages frozen and employees weren’t getting replaced when they left, which meant more work for those of us who did remain. On top of that, we kept running stories every quarter about how wonderful X Media was doing despite the economic downturn. (It’s amazing how well a company can do when it has no regard for its employees.) So, yeah, everybody at the small town newspaper hated our parent company, X Media.

One of X Media’s flagship papers in a nearby city (which I will call the Gothopolis Sun) was overhauling its website so it could better compete with the other major newspaper in the city, (which I will call the Gothopolis Free Press). X Media was making a big deal out of the Gothopolis Sun’s new website while at the same time explaining to all of us employees how it planned to create its own cable news channel and expand the company. Keep in mind that this was all occurring while our salaries were still frozen and we were still hopelessly understaffed.

Well, I had a look at the new website for the Gothopolis Sun and it looked suspiciously like the front page of their direct competitor, the Gothopolis Free Press, which had always done better than the Sun in Gothopolis.

So, the disgruntled employee in me sent out the following tweet (which I thought was wonderfully droll at the time) “The Gothopolis Sun’s new website looks like the front page of the Gothopolis Free Press: David wearing Goliath’s jock strap.”

I was fired about a week later or so. (Apparently the heathens didn’t like Biblical imagery or something.) Much to my delight (and the company’s chagrin, I’m sure), I was given a nice, fat severance package before leaving.

And why would a company that I had just insulted in a public forum give me a severance package instead of just sending me packing? Well, the other important point to remember from above is that this company went ahead and mandated all reporters to get and use a Twitter account without actually having a social media policy in place. I believe in the old days, this was referred to as putting the cart before the horse.

This incident is why I’m not on Twitter as myself, anymore. I am, however, on Twitter as a different person, plus I tweet for a couple of different companies, (not Pristine Advisers, though).

And now that I’ve wasted over 700 words on that anecdote, why we’re all here: corporate social media policies based on common sense.

This concept, as explained by Compliance Week’s Matt Kelly, comes from Guy Pieroni, director of technology audit; and Letty Limon, senior compliance counsel for McDonald’s, who introduced it at Compliance Week West in Silicon Valley in November last year.

Limon had helped to draft McDonald’s social media policy from a lawyer’s perspective, while Pieroni monitored it from an auditor’s perspective.

Early on in the pair’s presentation, according to Kelly, Pieroni hit on the best possible solution for a social media policy when he said the best policy is simply “a framework to stop and think.”

The words to focus on there are “stop” and “think,” something a lot of people tend not to do when it comes to social media (ahem).

Strict codes of conduct are virtually impossible to enforce on employees when it comes to social media. The technology moves too fast. A tweet or a post on a social media site is out the door before an IT department or an auditor can do anything about it. And technology evolves too quickly to get too specific. You might think you have most of your bases covered by mentioning the top social media sites when you write your policy, but those things are like mushrooms. They pop up everywhere, quickly.

So, if you can’t possibly keep up with the technology, it’s a better approach to view policy management as a task of persuasion rather than coercion. That entails articulating what the risks are, when those risks might arise, and what would be the optimal way for employees to respond. Ergo, a good policy should tell employees when to pause and think about the consequences, before sharing their thoughts with the world.

Limon made the point that a company, particularly a behemoth like McDonald’s that also has to worry about franchisees, can’t possibly hold the hand of all its employees or people authorized to use the McDonald’s name. It’s much easier to start employees off on the right foot from the beginning.

“When the employee has to engage with us is when he or she is doing something new,” Limon says “… As soon as you put a legal bottleneck in the process, people will start ignoring you and doing what they want to do.”

As Kelly says, positioning the compliance officer as counselor, while leaving responsibility in the hands of the business leader is a common idea that’s been used for a lot of different business practices. McDonald’s approach to social media policy is a great example of how to apply this idea to social media.

To bring this full circle, if X Media itself had stopped and thought prior to issuing the mandate for all reporters to open and use Twitter accounts, this whole mess could’ve been avoided. And if they had a ‘stop and think’ media policy in place before jumping into the deep end, I might still have a job there. Obviously, it would have still been up to me to do the stopping and thinking, but having someone in the company actually explain what they expect from their employees in terms of social media would have (probably) made it stick in my mind. And, by the way, the company did send someone around after the incident on a cross-country tour to explain how best to avoid conflict with the company on social media.

If only they’d sent that guy out before hand. … But if they had, I might still be stuck in a dead-end job and I wouldn’t have discovered the joys of working for myself and doing something I really love doing. So, if I’ve learned anything from the whole ordeal, it’s that sometimes it actually does pay to badmouth your own company on Twitter … I guess. (I don’t actually advocate doing that, though. Definitely stop and think first.)


2 responses to “‘Stop and think’ the best social media policy

  1. Pingback: Social media now seen as skill CEOs should have |·

  2. Pingback: 6 Risks a company faces when it doesn’t have a social media policy |·

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