Handling a brand’s social media is a nebulous job, encompassing targeted promotional posts, paid-for ads, quick-response customer service and brand development. These disparate objectives demand a wide set of skills, from copywriting and data analysis to photography and photo-editing. Even if you’re representing a relatively new or niche brand, you’ll almost certainly have to share the duties out if you want the job to be done well.

Splitting up social media tasks between multiple team members is undoubtedly a smart approach, but it can create problems too. Discrepancies in tone-of-voice, confidential info leaks and potential lawsuits are just a few of the many issues which can arise when your staff are left to operate your social media channels as they see fit.

Thankfully, you can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of these and similar errors by enforcing an employee social media policy.

Formulating your social media policy

Drawing up your social media policy is one of those areas in which it’s best to emulate first and innovate later.

A good way to start is to take a look at the social media policies currently in force at other companies. Many brands publish their social media policies online (and we’ll talk about the reasoning behind that later), providing invaluable insight for brands who are just starting to formalise their social media practices.

Let’s discuss a selection of crucial points from the social media policies in use at some of the world’s biggest brands.

Los Angeles Times – “The authenticity of what employees post is important. Online journalists should verify questionable content with credible sources before posting or tweeting about it.

This seems like bread-and-butter stuff – especially for a newspaper – but it’s a point that’s simply too important to overlook. Asking your social media staff to source their posts isn’t just a handy mechanism for passing the buck when a claim turns out to be ill-founded; it’s also a sure-fire way to ensure the person creating the post has done their research properly in the first place.

But what exactly constitutes a credible source? To help your staff out, you should create a list of news publishers and authorities within your field whose information you trust.

Ford – “Use your common sense

The brilliance of this point from Ford’s social media policy is its simplicity and universality. Tacitly, it’s an admission that no policy could ever fully guard against mistakes across the vast and varied array of social media activities being conducted in Ford’s name. They are telling their employees, in a firm-but-fair tone of voice, that they are being trusted to make their own, careful judgements as they go about their work.

A key insight to take away from this policy point is that a social media policy doesn’t need to be in any way technical in order to succeed. In fact, a more laissez-faire approach (i.e. a simpler, less demanding policy) is much likelier to engender a social media culture that exhibits edge and creativity.

Reuters – “The distinction between the private and the professional has largely broken down online and you should assume that your professional and personal social media activity will be treated as one no matter how hard you try to keep them separate. You should also be aware that even if you make use of privacy settings, anything you post on a social media site may be made public.

We think this is a fascinating point from the Reuters media agency’s social media policy. “Your professional and personal social media activity will be treated as one.” This defines the employee’s private social media profiles as extensions of their professional activities; as communication channels linked to the employee’s job role.

Reuters are not alone in pursuing this policy. Whilst browsing Twitter you will surely have encountered instances of the account-holder’s job role and place-of-work being stated in their profile description, often accompanied by an “All views are my own” disclaimer. This is not an entirely organic trend driven by the initiative of users; it’s also enshrined in social media policy at a number of major organisations.

If your employees’ personal social media account use is governed by the same rules which apply to their use of your company’s accounts and pages, employees will be less likely to post harmful statements about the company. Most people do realise that they shouldn’t embarrass the company they work for on social media – adding the rule to your social media policy makes the point clear beyond question.

Virgin Group – “Everyone in the company is social media active. All Virgin employees, from the chairman to new recruits, engage directly with their customers through social media.

This point is taken from an interview with Virgin’s Content Manager, rather than a copy of the Virgin Group’s social media policy – but nonetheless, it’s an interesting example of a no-holds-barred approach to social media across the full breadth of a company.

Every Virgin employee is expected to be active and policy-adherent on social media, from Sir Richard Branson right down to the newest recruits. Given that the median Facebook user has roughly 200 friends, and Virgin Group employs around 50,000 people, there’s clearly a massive opportunity here to project the brand to an audience of millions, via the normal social media activities of the group’s staff. Not only are Virgin’s employees expected to treat the brand respectfully on social media; they’re expected to be living advertisements.

As a brand, Virgin must be relatively easy for its employees to buy into. Whatever you may think about the number of seats on their trains, the company possesses an undeniable glamour. We don’t all have it quite so easy, but nevertheless it is almost always worth your while to encourage your employees to get behind your brand on social media – just make sure you define which company info is deemed confidential and should not be shared.

Coca-Cola – “Let the subject matter experts respond to negative posts. You may come across negative or disparaging posts about the Company or its brands, or see third parties trying to spark negative conversations. Unless you are a certified online spokesperson, avoid the temptation to react yourself. Pass the post(s) along to our official in‐market spokespersons who are trained to address such comments.

With over 130,000 direct employees worldwide, it stands to reason that Coca-Cola can spare the manpower to refer tricky social media situations to expert in-market spokespeople. Whether or not you can hire a dedicated team or team member to respond to unhappy customers on social media, we would certainly advise training at least one member of staff in how best to respond to complaints and criticisms.

This is a very sensible step to take, as it ensures the most volatile situations your brand encounters on social media are handled only by calm and trusted team-members, who would ideally feel a degree of distance from any negative comments made. Angry remarks are far less likely to elicit hasty responses if handling negativity is simply a part of the spokesperson’s job.

Some traits to look for in your in-market spokesperson or team:

  • Conflict-solving skills – including approachability, a sense of fairness and the ability to see both sides of a debate
  • Calmness under pressure – you can test this attribute out when you interview for the role
  • A meticulous approach – you’re looking for a candidate who takes as much time as they require to complete a task perfectly
  • Excellent English – to send an error-strewn apology message would be an affront to the customer and an embarrassment to the brand
  • Adherence to policy – this person needs to be willing and able to follow the company line to the letter

IBM – “Identify yourself – name and, when relevant, role at IBM – when you discuss IBM-related matters such as IBM products or services. You must make it clear that you are speaking for yourself and not on behalf of IBM.”

This point from IBM’s social media policy could well be the most valuable of all. More and more social media marketers are coming to view speaking through social media with a single, corporate voice in all situations as a mistake. Instead, they’re mixing their methods strategically – typically through attributing customer service communications to specific staff and keeping promotional posts anonymous.

Asking employees to sign off their social posts – whether made on a private or company profile – is a smart choice on a number of levels. For one thing, you’re establishing exactly where the responsibility for each communication lies; for another, you’re enforcing the notion that your brand, however large, is made up of real people, which instantly painting it in a more approachable light. What this boils down to is a simple and natural transposition of shop-floor norms onto a digital format.

Why do so many big brands publish their social media policies online?

However draconian you may be in enforcing your social media policy, your employees will make mistakes. Publishing your social media policy online makes it easier to reassure disappointed customers who have had a bad experience with your brand’s social media that the error was an aberration from company policy.
You can apologise to the customer, send them a link to your social media policy and point out where your rules have been contravened. Having proven your company-wide commitment to responsible social media conduct, you can then take steps to make things up to the customer, however you see fit.

Creating an employee social media policy of your own

Bearing all of the above examples in mind, here are a few steps which will get you well on the way to creating an employee social media policy for your own brand:

  • Take a cue from the leading brands in your industry – Try doing a Google search for “[Brand name] social media policy”; there’s a very good chance that at least one of the leaders in your field will have published their social media policy online. Many of the points will likely be pertinent to your brand too. Don’t be afraid to copy ideas.
  • Tailor your plan to your workforce – How much can you realistically expect of your workforce, in terms of extra effort to promote your brand, independence of judgement and ability to adhere to your policy? Your plan won’t work out if you’re asking too much.
  • Discuss the policy with everyone affected – By making all affected parties aware of your social policy and providing them with an opportunity to express their thoughts in a formal discussion, you can identify any potential sticking points and uncover new strategic opportunities.
  • Be flexible – Social media changes fast, and you should be ready to follow suit.