What’s in Your Social Media Policy?

June-July 2021
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As communicators, we know that pictures are worth a thousand words. In our profession, visuals get the mission, vision and message out to consumers at a glance, which is why social media engagement is so important — and why clear, thoughtful social media policies are imperative. 

Both marketing/PR and human resources should be involved in creating social media policies to ensure clear, consistent guidelines for the company. As it stands now, most comms and marketing departments have social media policies that include some form of photo/video release authorizations, types of content to post, tagging and hashtagging dos and don’ts, and how often to post content. 

And most HR departments address the use of social media by employees, prohibiting the personal use of social media on company time and the posting of sensitive and confidential company information. 

These are common general guidelines, but it’s not always so simple as I learned. 

Learning from real-world experiences

Picture this: a 12-year-old boy in his bright blue swim trunks, sitting on a white bench, the Olympic-size pool glistening and the smell of chlorine filling the air as he awaits his splash in the pool. Sounds like a wonderful photo for a family album, but instead, this photo went viral and caused the nonprofit I worked at to face backlash for more than four months, including possible lawsuits. 

The young man was with members of his family at our health facility to swim. We have swim tests that are administered before anyone can get in the deeper end of the pool. The swim test policy is given to members when they join, and the rules are posted by the pool on poster-size boards, clearly readable. 

The young man failed the deep-end test. He was obviously devastated, as he was looking forward to going swimming with his family. The rules and policy were questioned, and the manager on duty was called to assist as the issue started to escalate. 

The manager, knowing the company’s policies against smartphones on the pool deck or photography in the aquatics area unless previously authorized by the marketing department, allowed the family member to take a picture of the young man going through a portion of the swim test.

Because the manager allowed photographs to be taken, the family member took additional ones of the young man sitting on the bench waiting, as the staff continued hashing out whether the boy would swim or not. It was determined either he would have to retake the test or wait for an overrule the following day from the CEO. Either way, the young boy was unable to go swimming. And the family was upset.

Less than 30 minutes after the family left the facility, the photograph of the young man on the bench hit Facebook with our company tagged, a petition to have our facility investigated, and a call for the media to do an exclusive on our practices and mission principles, and was fast getting likes, shares, comments and tags. 

Working together to create a policy

You can’t conceive of every potential situation — just as we were caught off-guard by the response to this photo. This is where comms departments must work with human resources to collectively draft a social media policy that covers the employee and company with an assortment of separate and combined narratives. 

So what should the policy cover? Depending on your industry, you will first want to review the current policy to see if it includes all platforms and applications. You want to be as specific as possible to avoid loopholes and gray areas. Based on my experiences, here are some components you may consider when creating or revising a social media policy:

• Purpose — This will ensure that everyone in the company understands the reason for the company’s social media engagement and why they are putting in place a policy governing its use. 

• Definition — Clearly define what the company regards as social media, the platforms, and how the company will leverage the various platforms. Human resources will also include a clearly defined cellphone use policy. 

• Users — Who in the company will be authorized to contribute, engage with and respond to social media, and who will be monitoring their activities. Here is where you want to establish who the company photographer or contracted photographer is and their role.

• Ownership — Who will be creating content and selecting said content with posting and scheduling guidelines? Who will handle any photo or video release forms? 

• Content — Clearly spell out the type of information that can and cannot be divulged. 

• Employee conduct — Establish a code of conduct to prevent employees from inadvertently commenting about the company or a situation without the company’s knowledge, control and formal approval. 

• Communication risks — Create general and specific guidelines, along with best practices, for the use of different social media platforms. Include copyright material, trademarks, imagery guidelines (for example, no children under 18 in swimsuits) and a list of topics that should never be posted or discussed.

• Negative comments protocol — Develop a well-defined protocol on how to handle a third party’s negative posts/comments, such as when to acknowledge them, when to delete them, and how to handle threatening posts/comments. 

Both marketing and human resources need to be equally involved and have a plan in place to minimize the impact of negative posts/comments. The longer the response time, the more the likes, shares, tags and speculation snowball out of control. 

After four months, our organization saw a drop in the number of likes, shares and comments on the posting at the pool. In addition, after several meetings with the family, both sides were able to be heard and come to a mutual understanding, and next steps were established in moving toward lowering the risk of a repeat occurrence. 

Your goal in revising or creating a social media policy is to set expectations and guidelines for the unknowns that are closer than we think. Taking the necessary time to have a solid social media policy can systematically change and regulate our companies’ and consumers’ activities.  

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