Social Media Internal and External Policies

Each social network and online forum establishes their own rules for using their service. These rules can range from who owns the content published through them to how members of each service should behave. The rules - often called Terms of Service (TOS) or Terms of Use - are meant to manage the liability a company may have when they can’t fully control how others use their online service. As a business owner, you should have your own versions of rules, guidelines and policies, not only for the general public but also for your internal team.

Before social media, the most common policies posted publicly on websites were privacy policies, security policies and in the case of ecommerce, return policies. Both privacy and security policies were created when people became concerned about how their personal identifying information as well as credit card data was being gathered, used and protected. If you have a website and you ask anyone to provide you with information online, you should compose and post at least a privacy policy to explain how you will use the data that submit. Keeping a user or customer's information private is a best practice on the web.

In social networks, you have less control of what happens on your Facebook Page or on LinkedIn or even less on Twitter and technically the onus of website security often falls to the company running or hosting the sites. Carefully explore the privacy and security policies of the sites where you set up accounts and provide your own proprietary information to know how you are protected first and what protections you can pass on to anyone interacting with your company or organization on those sites.

Getting Started

When developing a Terms of Service (TOS) for your online presences, determine your own internal policies alongside your external ones so that they complement each other. Start by articulating what is acceptable and what is not acceptable behavior when others interact with your company online in the sites and networks that you’ve set up, regardless of where they are hosted. Unacceptable activities or behavior might be infringing on other people's copyrights and trademarks, linking to pornographic material or behaving inappropriately.

Here's an excerpt from an actual TOS addressing consequences:

We reserve the right to ask you to leave or block you from our network if you are unable to “play nice.” We will always provide a reason if we delete a comment or block someone – as long as they provide their correct email address. And we will be open to valued members of our community as to why we do what we do.

If you use general statements such as “treat people in the community with respect,” spell out what will happen if someone doesn't follow your rules. Will you give them a warning? Will you delete their post or comment? Will you ban them from the site? Note that not every social network - such as Twitter and LinkedIn - gives you the administrative ability to ban someone.

Both your external and internal TOS should be written in clear, easy-to-understand language instead of dense legalese. Here are some examples of rules for an external TOS:

Be kind. The Golden Rule applies here. We are looking for comments on content or issues, not individuals.

Be transparent. We don't appreciate anonymous comments, however, will allow them if they follow The Golden Rule as we understand there are some valid reasons for maintaining anonymity.

Be truthful. We work hard to check our facts and tell you what we believe to be true. We ask that you do the same.

Don't spam. If you come to our website, blog or social networking presence to promote your company, service or product, chances are we will remove the post unless it is relevant to the conversation and done so in a non-commercial fashion.

Internal Rules

When thinking about your internal guidelines and policies for your staff, don't discount the value of social media for your team. Instead of forbidding social media use by employees, educate them and provide clear rules in your Employee Handbook. Specify who is allowed to publish content on your company’s behalf and how each team member can interact on social networks during business hours. What do you consider unacceptable online behavior by employees and what are the repercussions of it?

Here are a few rules you might want to include in your internal policies and guidelines:

Be transparent. No matter what, always be clear who you are. We are not blogging or posting online anonymously, and we do not encourage our team to be anonymous either.

Be truthful. Honesty is the best policy. Do your best to check facts, be accurate, and above all, tell the truth. When in doubt, consult your supervisor.

Be kind. Even if you are being critical about a software product, a service or a company, do so in a respectful way. Make sure your criticism is constructive.

You cannot expect your online community members to adhere to rules that your own team ignores. You can find templates for TOS on the web and use them to shape your own company rules. However, you should consult a lawyer before publishing them. When you do put them online, make sure you link to them from your website, blog, and from the social networks you use where possible.