social media how toPolicy. It can be a dirty word, especially in social media communities.

Why? Poorly written social media policies restrict, deter and deaden social media engagement–the exact opposite of what businesses want.

However, great social media policies support, protect and empower high-quality engagement. It is about empowerment and trust.

As Beth Kanter writes, “Trust is cheaper than control.”

This article will explain how social media policies differ from other policies and give you 10 tips to help create an effective social media policy.

Why Social Media Policies?

Social media policies are different. In most policies and procedures, we document what staff should do in certain situations: “If this happens, do that.” For social media, there is no way to know exactly what situations may arise – or in many cases – how staff should best handle them. Each social media network and each relationship is unique and the social media environment changes daily.

The risks are uncertain. The courts are in the process of interpreting laws in regards to social media. Until that interpretation process is mature – and this will take yearsorganizations operate without definitive guidance. Issues that may arise include: employee and/or client confidentiality, labor relations issues, brand jacking, miscommunication, spamming, etc.

Given an uncertain environment and unclear risks, how do we move forward?

There are hundreds of sample social media policies on the Internet. If you are looking for a starting point, you will surely find ideas here and here.

However, in order to create policies that work – really work – we must first lay the groundwork.

Here are 10 strategies you can implement today.

#1: Gather Your Team

A social media policy cannot be written by one person alone. It must be unique to your organization and ideally should include input from many different people with a variety of skill sets.

A team approach ensures that key areas of risk are managed properly and that any future challenges that may arise are handled appropriately.

Besides the staff directly involved in social media, potential team members might include: CEO, HR director, IT director, marketing/development director, program/department director, a social media–savvy lawyer and at least one digital native.

Don’t worry, not every member of this team needs to be aware of the intimate details of your social media activities. Think of it this way: if a crisis should occur, what information does your team need to have (about the social media and legal landscapes as well as your organization and values) in order to respond appropriately on social media?

strong team

Who needs to be on your social media team? Image source: iStockPhoto.

#2: Focus on Creating Culture

Social media is organic. It changes every day. Bureaucratic policies aren’t likely to be successful. Instead, we want a culture of innovation, idea-sharing, problem-solving and creativity. There is a direct link between internal organizational culture and policies. In fact, the policies we write shape our culture.

As you write your policies, include processes that reinforce a culture of evaluation and learning. Here are some questions to consider:

  • Who is on your social media team?
  • How often do they meet?
  • How are problems/challenges handled and by whom?
  • How do you document group learning?
  • How will we evaluate our successes and learn from our failures?

In your policies, you can acknowledge the social media cultural values of transparency, consistency, connection, creativity and promptness. With these values in mind, build processes that emphasize training, support and evaluation.

If the concept of social media culture is new to you, check out the 26 Promising Social Media Stats for Small Businesses. It offers a great overview of the social media landscape and why it affects businesses.

#3: Consider Legal Ramifications, Including the National Labor Relations Review Board (NLRB)

Many of the court cases coming out about social media are labor relations issues. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was enacted primarily to protect employees’ rights to organize.

Traditionally, employee organizing took place in person or over the phone. With the advent of social media, it also takes place online. It doesn’t matter if employees are unionized or not; they have the right to discuss conditions of employment with fellow employees.

This means that even a casual conversation on Facebook about working conditions may be protected under the NLRA. Each situation is different, but the bottom line is this: be very careful about telling employees what they can and cannot do on their own personal social media sites. This language can quickly backfire.

In August 2011, the NLRB issued a memo regarding 14 of these cases. This memo provided explanations of the cases as well as the reasoning behind the decisions made. I highly recommend that employers read this memo and share it with everyone on the social media team.


Memo dated 8/18/11 from the National Labor Relations Review Board.

#4: Separate Overall Policies from Site-Specific Guidelines

The social media landscape changes every day. If your policies are narrowly focused on a specific social media site, they will be out of date pretty quickly. In general, the policy should focus on the big picture: who does what (roles and responsibilities), a general overview of how they can/can’t do it (legal compliance and branding, for example) and why we do it at all (purpose and values).

Separate written guidelines can be created to record the nitty-gritty specifics of a certain social media site. These guidelines help tremendously in the case of staff turnover. The process of drafting guidelines also helps staff to better understand and explain what they are doing and how.

#5: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

It’s likely that you already have many internal policies in place that apply to social media activities. This includes policies about privacy, photo consents, Internet usage, cell phone usage and many others.

You can reference these policies in your social media policies, taking special note of any differences in application that may be necessary with social media.

For example, your cell phone usage policy may not currently discuss the use of photos from cell phone cameras. Thanks to geotagging, photos taken by cell phones almost universally contain digital coding which betrays your exact location on the date and time of the photo. If you upload a photo taken by a cell phone camera to your social media sites, you might be giving away more information than necessary.

A social media policy might take this into consideration by requiring staff to use software to strip the photos of geotagging information before the photos may be posted.


Many of your existing policies are applicable to social media. Image source: iStockPhoto.

#6: Include External Regulations

Most legal regulations (including HIPAA, FERPA, fair employment, etc.) are in effect online as well as offline. Use the social media policies to remind employees that these regulations must be adhered to. Where possible, give explicit examples of what types of behavior are not acceptable.

P.S.: This is a good time to think through your corporate compliance training. Social media is affecting just about every aspect of our lives and businesses. If your training on privacy, confidentiality, branding, etc., don’t currently discuss social media, it’s time to include it.

#7: Create Two Policies

It is considered a best practice to have two social media policies: one for employees using social media for their job and one for employees using social media in their personal lives.

The first policy, focusing on job-related activities, should cover everything we’ve been discussing here: defining your team, articulating roles and responsibilities, branding guidelines, and becoming clear about what internal and external policies must be complied with.

The second policy, focusing on employees using social media in their personal lives, should give employees information about what they can and cannot say about your company on their personal site.

Some organizations – including military organizations and health care – will want to be very specific about what employees are not allowed to share online.

For example, trade secrets, client information and even employee whereabouts might be kept strictly confidential. Other organizations will want to encourage employees to act as brand ambassadors. Some even go so far as to provide guidance as to how to talk about the company online. However you’d like your employees to discuss (or not discuss) your company online, give them guidance.

Two words of caution: 1) It is dangerous to require employees to use their own personal social media accounts to connect with your company online. They may choose to do so, but let that be their choice. The last thing any manager wants is to learn more about an employee’s private life than he/she needs to know. 2) Before you write the policy, reread tip #3 and the memo from the National Labor Relations Review Board. It may save you a lot of headache down the road.

#8: Emphasize Education

The boundaries between our personal and professional lives are blurring. Most employees haven’t fully realized the challenges that may develop as a result of decreased privacy. The old saying was, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” Today, a more accurate statement is, “What happens in Vegas, stays on Facebook.”

As I read the court cases that come out about social media, it seems to me that many of the cases arise out of ignorance, not malice, on the part of the employee. Many employees haven’t fully thought through the consequences of their cyber-behavior. By providing cyber-safety education to their staff, employers are preventing problems before they start.

Just as you have two policies, one for job-related activities and one for employees using social media in their personal life, employee education can also take two tracks:

  • Provide job-related training to staff engaged in social media on the organization’s behalf. Ongoing, regular training helps keep your organization current and gives staff an opportunity to network with others in the field.
  • Educate all staff on Internet safety. This education might include how to protect ourselves from cyber-crime and how to establish and protect our online reputation.

When it comes to responsible cyber-behavior, employers have a unique opportunity to educate rather than mandate. This commitment demonstrates respect for the employees. Employees feel valued, trusted and inspired. Everyone benefits.

#9: Ask a Lawyer to Review the Policy

Legal advice is critical. It is easy to misstep, especially in the areas of labor relations. Make sure you ask a lawyer who has experience in the area – your tax attorney friend won’t be of much help.

Legal review can be expensive; however, a lawsuit would be exponentially more costly.

#10: Don’t Let it Collect Dust

The cyber-environment changes frequently. Social media policies should be reviewed at least every six months. Let everyone on the team review the policy separately and then together.

Ask yourselves, is this still relevant? Does this help us do our jobs? How has the social media environment changed recently? Are there any legal updates that apply?

Social media policies are not the most exciting part of social media; however, if they are developed well, they can support, empower and engage staff as they in turn engage your clients.

antique books

Mark your calendars to review your policies in 6 months. Image source: iStockPhoto.

What are your thoughts? What is your best advice for a company writing a social media policy? Please leave your questions and comments in the box below.

Images from iStockPhoto.
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  • Pingback: 10 Tips for Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Business | imSocial()

  • barradsbuzz

    All good points. I also recommend getting risk management related business insurance and review your existing liability policies. 

  • Danny Blair

    This is a pretty in depth article but I was wondering how this policy would work, or be adapted, when using external consultants, agencies etc. I’m reminded of the social media agency guy who used a client’s Twitter account (a car maker in Detroit – Ford, I think) to bemoan his rush hour journey to work in abusive and ‘colourful’ language. I believe he lost his job and the agency lost the account. It would be interesting to know if he signed up to the agency’s policy, the client’s policy, both or none! 

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  • fingersfly

    What if your organization has a lot of volunteers? Do they need the same depth of training? Is there recourse if a volunteer blabs something inappropriate about the org?

  • Hanne Lene Dalgleish

    How timely! I’m looking forward to digging into creating our social media policy and now I’ve got some great leads to follow. I particularly appreciate your point about educating staff about cyber-safety.

  • thesis

    good idea:)

  • Jenniferamandajones

    Hi Fingersfly – If the organization has volunteers that engage with youth/clients, have access to confidential information, etc. then yes, training is especially important. Many nonprofits include social media policies as a part of their volunteer manuals.

  • Jeff Korhan

    What is the best advice for a company writing a social media policy?  Keep it simple.  The best one I know of is Zappos: These are the 10 core values that you agreed to when you were hired. Just honor them in everything your do.

    That’s it. That’s their social media policy for their 2,000+ employees, and it has enabled them to be where they are today thanks to their involvement with Twitter when it was just getting off the ground.

    The whole idea of social media is to humanize the business – too many rules make that impossible.

  • Rich McElaney

    I think you’re dead-on with this post Jennifer. For companies yet to dive into social media, it’s the first thing they should consider before launching anything. For companies already active in social media without any policy, they should consider themselves fortunate they haven’t run into trouble. For one of our larger clients we created a single policy to cover corporate use of social media – after reading #7 I’m going to recommend they develop a second policy because that’s a weak link in the policy protection they currently have. Thanks for writing about a critical component of a sound social media strategy!

  • Arwen McGilvra

    Thanks for the info. I’m actually addressing a non-profit board this month on this very issue, and you article will be very helpful in putting that presentation together.

  • Julie Leadbeater

    If he was a consultant it’s entirely possible he was involved in producing the policy if it existed at all!

  • Julie Leadbeater

    This is really helpful and thank you. It comes at a good time for me because I’m in the throes of developing exactly such a policy for a client and it’s a great check-list for me.

  • amarareps

    I honestly think that experts aren’t writing enough about this. I recommend internal social media policies for my clients all the time, and they never have any idea where to start. I’m not sure why outsourced HR companies aren’t educating themselves about this more too. My clients turn to their HR companies for guidance, and they are absolutely clueless as well. The most important thing that I feel my clients need to know is that they need to protect themselves, especially if they have commissioned sales people on their teams and things like that.

    I’ve seen too many times that people claim their organizations locations on the newest platform, and post information that could get the organization in trouble. Then when issues arise, I bring up the fact that they need an all encompassing DIGITAL policy that explains the dos and don’ts of their online behavior as it relates to the brand.

    This is a serious problem that definitely needs to be review every 6 months (at minimum) as you stated in your post. I have horror stories from clients that have made social policies an afterthought. It is usually companies that engage in social media for the sake of doing so, but don’t take it very seriously that make this fatal mistake. They take it serious once they realize how much damage that NOT having these policies in place can do. .

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  • Maria

    Great Post, and Very Interesting Information!!

  • Kamela Cook

    Great article.  I’ve already shared it with a couple of my clients…thanks!

  • Tufail Shahzad

    Jennifer very smart! i think social media policy and strategy is having a thin line to differentiate things. Having a passionate team to work and implement social media policy / strategy and also focusing on the targeted audience is one of the key point.

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  • Andrew Smith

    Practical advice to follow regarding policy which is the pivot of running a successful business and by consultation  with staff to implement the policies which are aimed at clarity could only lead to a greater success. A good strategy protects your future business dealings.

  • Jenniferamandajones

    Hi Julie,

    Great! I have an entire page on my website dedicated to resources on social media policies. It might help:

  • lee wilson

    good starting point for company on social communication, especially on differentiating corporate and personal social media activities.!

  • Jenniferamandajones

    Great! Make sure you check out the NLRB memo released in August of 2011.

  • Udayan

    There is “Social Media Policy” and then there is “Social Media Guideline”. Which one do you want to create? Is there a difference?


    Social Media Policy = You view social media as a threat – risk to be contained
    Social Media Guideline = You view social media as an opportunity – to be leveraged 

  • Henry Louis

    Hi Jennifer! First of all, I am really appreciating you for choosing this concept. Now-a-days social media is playing very important role in improving communication between different people so that it would be more helpful to the business. In this article, the way that you have suggested the different tips for creating social media policy for our business is really awesome. It would be more helpful to many business people. Nice post.

  • bethkanter

    Terrific post and thanks to linking to my post   I’m adding this post to my curated collection 

  • Devra

    Everyday I learn so many new things from social media examiner and all those that write and contribute back. Having a new start up company and utilizing social media along with new employees these guidelines/policy make a lot of sense. Much Aloha Devra

  • Aaron Eden

    Love the tips here.  I wonder which would be more acceptable to use: Rules or Policy?  You know, there are plenty of small businesses who are outsourcing some social media tasks, onshore or offshore, and I hope you can come up with a second segment on how they can draft their social media policies in these scenarios, thanks!

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  • Alice Bradshaw

    Zappos has a really twisted set of values and company policies. 

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  • terezinha

    yes thanks

  • Global Finance School

    What an excellent article! I’m learning…

  • Janet I Mueller

    Terrific post, very helpful indeed! Thanks for sharing.

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  • Cheryl

    No. 4 is especially important. In most cases I find it useful to include a “and abide by organizational communications policies” clause. If you can’t share it with the media, you probably shouldn’t share it socially.

  • Web Designer

    very nice tips..It is helpful to all those people on the web.

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  • Ryan Rosado

    This is an excellent post.  Many people tend to shy away from the legal implications of using social media in the workplace.  There is so little out there on this crucial topic.  Thanks for shedding some light on it.  It seems like most people have their heads in the sand on this issue.  

  • Andy Sernovitz

    Hi –

    We have a social media policy toolkit that you can download free at

    Andy Sernovitz, CEO

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  • Denise Butchko

    I can’t get to either of the links regarding the Labor Relations memo or the 14 cases – both links are indicating “404”. Any suggestions?

  • John Allred

    Really love the tips you include around
    what to include in your social media policy. In fact, I’m going to ask my team
    to adopt them. Thanks for the smart post!

  • Akash Agarwal

    media often feeds into the finding of new content such as news stories, and
    discovery is a search activity. It’s really good to use such social media policies for business.

  • guptaabhijit318

    This is an excellent post. This article is very helpful and clearly explained. Amazing tips for-creating-a-social-media-policy-for-your-business

  • John Allred

    I agree with your points. You can’t expect
    readers to engage with you if you don’t respond to them.