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Social Networking Policy: Must-Have Elements

Consider this expert advice on the issues that should be addressed in enterprise social networking guidelines.

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Now that your organization has seen the need to develop a social networking policy and has determined the key people who should craft it, you need to decide what should go in it. Social networking policies will vary by organization and especially by industry, but there are some basic tenets that should be addressed in all social networking guidelines.

Ben Edwards, VP of digital strategy and development at IBM, said social networking policies can be as general or as specific as an organization needs them to be, but that it's important to establish consistent messages and expectations across all social media platforms. "At IBM, our Social Computing Guidelines include all forms of online publishing and discussion, including blogs, wikis, file sharing, user-generated video and audio, virtual worlds, and social networks," Edwards said. "These social computing guidelines are an extension of the organization's Business Conduct Guidelines, which apply to IBMers' activities in general, beyond social media platforms.

While companies will need to determine the level of granularity that's right for them, the big three public social networks--Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn--should be addressed specifically, said Jake Wengroff, global director of social media strategy and research at Frost & Sullivan. "I think companies should have guidelines for all three of these networks," he said. "Of course, those aren't the only three games in town--there are many other social networks, and there are social features embedded in other websites and applications--but I think providing specific guidelines on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter would actually serve an organization very well."

One of the most important things a policy should mandate is transparency, said experts. When posting for your company online and especially when engaging with customers, transparency is key.

"There are a few fundamental concepts that we feel are important to be specific about, across all social media platforms and really in any business activity, but perhaps the most important is transparency--be who you are," said IBM's Edwards. "The lines between public and private, personal and professional, are blurred in online social networks, so it's imperative that the employee clearly identify who they are, where they work, and take ownership of the materials posted."

This requirement for transparency applies not only to employees' use of company-sponsored social networking platforms but also on their own personal platforms. The social networking policy should state that employees must not represent themselves as speaking on behalf of their employer, especially when comments run counter to what the company believes or is trying to achieve.

Edwards said social networking policy should also cover corporate policy regarding such things as disclosure of confidential information and intellectual property. "At IBM, there's no gray area when it comes to sensitive information--for IBM's protection as well as for the IBM employees' protection," he said. "We ask that they refrain from discussing IBM confidential or proprietary information. If there's a question about information you might like to post, approach management to discuss--simple as that."

Frost & Sullivan's Wengroff suggests that, with the fluid nature of social networking practices and social networks themselves, organizations should be sure to include the contact information for a person or department that can guide potential users. That way, people who would like to participate but don't know how to get started will have a place to go for questions and additional guidance.

Indeed, Wengroff thinks that one of the most important things a social networking policy can include is a tone that invites participation. "I'm a big believer that besides the social media policy policing the organization, the social media policy also has to promote the organization," he said. "Too often, social media policies will include what you shouldn't do--they just list all of the bad stuff. A properly written social media policy also includes the do's--that's important.

Edwards agreed: "Guidelines should not be a set of rules imposed from above; they are meant to provide helpful, practical advice to protect both the employee/social media practitioner and the organization."

Finally, no matter what is included in your social networking guidelines, it should be treated as a living document, and revisited and revised as needed, moving forward.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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