social mediaOver the past 10 years, social media has opened up a new world of marketing communications. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other popular platforms have created a wide variety of opportunities for businesses to engage with customers, partners, and their own employees. Consumer-facing businesses were the first to embrace these new channels, and slowly but surely B2B companies and even regulated businesses like private capital have come on board.

With the new opportunity have come a number of risks. From demands for interaction from users, controlling communication in a public forum and comments going “viral” to maximizing value of the platforms while adhering to industry regulations, corporate communicators are being asked to manage many issues that can impact reputation. But the company communication is really just the tip of the iceberg. Social media platforms were built for personal interaction, and this is where the real risk exists.

Every employee within your organization is likely to be active on at least one social media platform. From one perspective, these are personal activities where an employer does not have any real right to dictate behavior. From another, social media activity is covered by standard “code of conduct” stipulations as employees’ actions can and do reflect on their employer. The latest high-profile example of this intersection of the personal and professional was ESPN’s firing of Curt Schilling for a Facebook post he made regarding the debate over transgender peoples’ legal access to restrooms. This was on Schilling’s personal Facebook page, but his employer could not ignore the reputational impact it had on the company.

There is no easy answer on how to address this issue. Companies need to protect their reputations, but at the same time, they don’t want to create draconian rules that will make the company less attractive to talented people. The right answer will be customized to each company’s culture, people and industry. The only wrong answer is to not address it at all, making any eventual punitive action appear arbitrary.

You may not need or be able to immediately build a comprehensive employee social media policy, but you must start discussing the risks now and begin putting some guidelines into place. This effort must cross HR, legal, and communications teams at minimum to arrive at a policy that balances the personal freedoms of employees with the professional reputation of your business.

– Tom Faust

Image via Wikimedia Commons