Seven Questions to Ask Before Developing a Social Media Policy

Crafting a social media policy is premature unless the policy designers answer these critical questions first.

May 13, 2011

Social media disrupts the long-standing rules of business in many ways, but crafting a social media policy is premature unless the designers of the policy answer seven critical questions first, according to Gartner Inc.

“Social media offers tempting opportunities to interact with employees, business partners, customers, prospects and a whole host of anonymous participants on the social Web,” says Carol Rozwell, vice president/analyst at Gartner. “However, those who participate in social media need guidance from their employer about the rules, responsibilities, ‘norms,’ and behaviors expected of them. These topics are commonly covered in the social media policy."

Gartner has identified seven critical questions that designers of social media policy must ask themselves:

1. What’s our social media strategy?

There are many possible purposes for social media. It can be used for increasingly involved interaction (ranging from monitoring to co-creation) and across four different constituencies (employees, business partners, current and potential customers, and the social Web).

Social media leaders must determine the purpose of their initiatives before they deploy them. And those responsible for social media initiatives must articulate how the organization's mission, strategy, values, and desired outcomes inform and impact on these initiatives.

A social media strategy plan is one means of conveying this information.

2. Who will write and revise the policy?

Some organizations assign policy writing to the chief information officer, others believe it’s the general counsel’s job, while in other cases, a self-appointed committee crafts a policy.

It’s useful to gain agreement about who’s responsible, accountable, consulted, and involved before beginning work on the policy. When possible, a cross-section of the company's population should be involved in the policy creation process.

It’s important to remember there’s a difference between policy (which states do’s and don’ts at a high level) and operational processes (such as recruitment or customer support) which may use social media.

These operational processes need to be flexible and changeable and adhere to the policy. But each department/activity will need to work out specific governance and process guidelines.

3. How will we vet the policy?

Getting broad feedback on the policy serves two purposes:

  • Ensures that multiple disparate interests (i.e., legal, security, privacy, and corporate branding) have been adequately addressed and that the policy is balanced; and
  • Increases the amount of buy-in when a diverse group of people is asked to review and comment on the policy draft. This means that the process by which the policy will be reviewed and discussed, along with the feedback, will be incorporated into the final copy.

A vetting process that includes social media makes it more likely that this will occur.

Next: Employee responsibilities?

4. How will we inform employees about their responsibilities?

Some organizations confuse policy creation with policy communication. A policy should be well-written and comprehensive, but it’s unlikely that the policy alone will be all that’s needed to instruct employees about their responsibilities for social media.

A well-designed communication plan, backed by a training program, helps to make the policy come to life so employees understand not just what the policy says, but how it affects them.

It also explains what the organization expects to gain from its participation in social media, which should influence employees’ social media interactions.

5. Who will monitor social media employee activities?

Once you’ve set the strategy, established the rules, and explained the rationale for them, who will ensure they’re followed? Who will watch to make sure the organization is getting the desired benefit from social media?

A well-designed training and awareness program will help with this. But managers and the organization’s social media leader also need to pay attention.

Managers need to understand policy and assumptions and how to spot inappropriate activity. But their role is to be more of a guide to support team self-moderation, rather than employ a top-down, monitor-and-control approach.

6. How will we train managers to coach employees on social media use?

Some managers will have no problem supporting their employees as they navigate a myriad of social media sites. Others may have more trouble helping employees figure out the best approach for blogs, microblogs, and social networking.

There must be a plan for how the organization will give managers the skills needed to confront and counsel employees on this sensitive subject.

7. How will we use missteps to refine our policy and training?

As with any new communications medium, some initiatives go exceptionally well, while others run adrift or even sink.

Organizations that approach social media using an organized and planned approach, consistent with the organization's mission, strategy, and values, will be able to review how well these initiatives meet their objectives and use that insight to improve existing efforts or plan future projects better.

For more information, consult Gartner’s “Answer Seven Critical Questions Before You Write Your Social Media Policy.”