Influence behaviours: create social business guidelines valued as an employee resource

What are the advantages of making something a collaborative effort and promoting the terminology of “resource?”

External and internal communication specialists in a communicative organization understand the significance and impact of the name given to a document.

Even more important than its title, who holds accountability for its creation and how many areas have input and influence on resulting internal behaviours and external outcomes.

Ask any corporate communicator: Collaborative efforts are always more valued by employees.

In the past, I’ve initiated and implemented two internal/external communication style guides as resources (one for work, the other as a volunteer board member); social media guidelines are an updated, social business version of this concept.

In conversation with internal communication specialist (and past contributor to this blog), Rachel Miller, about this topic, she proposed garnering feedback from departments outside of corporate communication—helping to shape the content assists in a more-willing internal adoption of policies and guidelines. She characterizes it as, “Gathering not only your allies but also the doubters,” for ongoing acceptance and implementation. Miller also indicates it leads to a, “You say, we’ve created” scenario, rather than “tell and sell.”

Communicating the value of social business guidelines as a resource sends a powerful message that helps influence good behaviour, particularly when coupled with how guidelines differ from policies.

A social business policy mindset

Similar to earlier electronic use policies, the majority of companies appear to draw up social media policies mainly as a human resources- and legal-driven exercise. Those departments (or counsel) primarily focus on potential damage or risk to reputation, organizational values and trust, if social channels are misused or abused by employees, by detailing a cautionary or punitive tale that may enfold. To a large extent, social media policies are black-and-white edicts, based on current legal and societal norms.

This is a crucial policy document to develop. If ignored, misinterpreted or misunderstood, generally employees won’t have legitimate authoritative appeal avenues, because it comes down to the reputation and values of the organization, not those of the individual. It’s now becoming common to hear of employees being dismissed because policies weren’t followed in social.

A social business guidelines mindset

A social-savvy corporate communication department tasked with devising complementary social media guidelines for employees will have a different mindset and goals than HR and legal.

Although they must correspond and correlate (and ultimately defer) to the social business policies, the guidelines serve as a resource to employees, offering general advice and recommendation for effective social communication, as well as flexibility in greyer areas. This is particularly important when the department or employee is empowered to make social business decisions (within pre-authorized parametres) or when the approval-process manager is not immediately available or on leave or vacation.

How to cultivate more customized and personalized social engagement and relationships on behalf of the business should also be at the centre of the guidelines.

The social guidelines should be an evolving document, updated with employee input and feedback from different areas touched by and contributing to the social business. In particular, the anecdotal (personalized) engagement, creativity, innovation and co-creation or collaboration stories that proved successful and can be easily translated and implemented into general “best practices” social business guidelines—ones that add to reputation, value and trust of the organization, without adding unsustainable resource allocation.

Ike Pigott, communication strategist for Alabama Power—a part of Southern Company that serves 1.4-million customers in the lower 3/4 of the state of Alabama—details how its social media advisory council comprises employees drawn from across the (risk-adverse) public utility who understand social media and counsel internal groups on best practices.

Alabama Power is very cognizant that ownership of a channel must come with intent, a content plan and managed expectations of stakeholders.

In an interview Pigott indicated, “Listening is still the gold mine, and we’re getting smarter about engagement all of the time.”

A social business communication strategy includes the why and what of organizational values, goals and objectives. Effective guidelines provide for educated flexibility and personalization of the insourcing efforts when it comes to “relating the inside out” to external stakeholders.

Per the Global Alliance’s Melbourne Mandate, social media guidelines should be embedded with the corporate DNA of culture, leadership and values. This allows any employee in any capacity (such as customer service) to be an organizational social public relations representative, spokesperson and set of ears for listening, when and where empowered with the appropriate training and understanding. The employee social media guidelines can assist in this training and understanding, which will increase its valuation as a resource in the communicative organization.

What areas to include in your social media guidelines

There really isn’t a cookie-cutter approach to drawing up social media guidelines, as much will depend on factors such as:

  • type of organization (e.g., B2C, B2B, association, non-profit/charity, government, NGO, regulated company, agency)
  • geographical location and size of the organization (e.g., national or global, number of employees or partners)
  • educational background/profession, existing online experience and ages and diversity of employees
  • culture and values, character and personality of the business, including which aspects of these are most congruent to “relating” outside via social media
Universal areas to consider for inclusion in the social media guidelines:
  1. Preferred corporate identification, including terminology, logos and advertising/marketing collateral or more casual imagery (i.e., official charitable event attendance or corporate team-building sessions).
  2. Acceptable language, decorum and topics (particularly ones unrelated to the social business) on corporate accounts.
  3. How much individual personality and activities/interest is encouraged (or allowed) for employees managing various social business accounts. In particular, this applies to social business community managers.
  4. Preferred language, decorum and topics (social business related or otherwise) on personal accounts, where the employee indicates a social business affiliation.
  5. Which sites the business is actively using, including the department responsible for intent, content plan and managed expectations, as well as how the voice and tone of the brand should be shared across each social channel.
  6. Direction on how employees can meaningfully and responsibly interact with stakeholders and publics online, including what company business can and can’t be discussed, what issues they are empowered to solve, and what promises can be made regarding service delivery or other areas needing resolution.
  7. The approval process and structures regarding uploading content or new social business information not yet available on other public platforms.
  8. Areas where employees are invited to provide feedback and proactive input on current practices, as well as new suggestions to improve the social business.

In all of the above, the emphasis should be on collaborative and positive, guiding principles and behaviours for employees who serve as ambassadors and brand champions for their social business.

Explain the why and what behind the strategy and invite further queries, as well as opportunities to build on or challenge and change the guidelines.

Not only do social media guidelines assist in corporate communication succession planning, but they also help to mitigate risk from all employees who participate in social media, because it is understood where they can add (rather than subtract) value to overall (social) business objectives.

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Do you have any additional suggestions when formulating social business guidelines so that they will be viewed as a resource and influence good behaviours, rather than a set of hard-and-fast rules?

Should the social business guidelines, in addition to the policies, be posted online?

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Additional suggested resources:

Heather Yaxley (in the comments section): Unrestricted staff access to social media – a roundup by Helen Reynolds

Lisa Nabieszko (in the Canadian Women in Communications LinkedIn Group) suggested a 2010 Social Media Examiner post by Cindy King: How to Create Social Media Business Guidelines

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11 Replies to “Influence behaviours: create social business guidelines valued as an employee resource

  1. I’d like to weigh in and echo some similar points made thus far; the way Social Media is and can be utilised by an organisation depends entirely on the nature of that organisation and the services it provides. Most places I see have no definitive Social Media guidelines at all – certain members of staff ‘just use it’ and it’s accepted if it helps. If it’s a positive thing, it’s certainly a happy accident!

    Conversely, some organisations have a blanket block and miss out on what Social Media has to offer. The nature of the industry I’m in currently mean that, despite it probably being something that would help in terms of recruitment, PR and marketing, no staff can have any presence on Social Media. We do have a policy that came about due to a pressing need (which is when most policies are written generally – when the need becomes urgent!).

    As Social Media matures and businesses become more aware and less scared of it, I see a Social Media policy being part of a standard induction… It’s a purely a matter of time.

  2. Judy,
    This is a well written piece on the importance of collaboration in a social business among employees in compliance with company policy. I agree with all of it. However, I believe this issue is also influenced by the size of a company as well as its culture. The advice you provide in your piece impresses me to be excellent guidance for larger enterprises with thousands of employees. I know of a U.S. company with about 500 employees and a strong culture of collaboration. Their social business communication policy is just three words: use good judgement.

    An approach like the one I mention can only succeed when a company has a strong culture of collaboration and employee empowerment that flows through all levels of the organization.

    1. Greetings, Bernie. Thank you for taking up David Graham’s suggestion to read and comment here.

      The fact that I couch this around the “corporate communication” department already speaks to the concept that this post is mainly aimed at companies or organizations with, say, 35 or more employees, one that recognizes the importance of communication enough to have a dedicated staff member or more to focus on communication beyond marketing. Smaller companies often combine many roles into one position—or outsource—and unfortunately communication for non-marketing purposes can often gets short-shrift in the strategy.

      Oh that more corporate cultures are so evolved and strong and empowering to employees that a three-word social business communication policy would suffice to influence good behaviours and external outcomes! It really depends on how and where the organization centres its “licence to operate.” If it’s only to market and sell, I see social media success as less likely, whether or not policies and guidelines are in place.

  3. Judy – again thanks for the useful post. I recommend checking out the blog from a former CIPR student of mine, Helen Reynolds who has been doing some really imaginative engagement work with employees of a local council in Wales of the past few years. She presents a round up here:

    Her post is more about giving employees access to social media with reference to the social media guidelines in place, which are a foundation backed up by training and support.

    I feel it is vital to recognise there is a counter side to that Mike presents because employers increasingly expect employees to be ambassadors via social media, employees may well have a strong social media presence and engagement, prior to employment, and organisations may well be relying on a ‘bring your own’ approach to use of technology. So any expectations of employees in terms of SM use even in their own time and using their own equipment need to be considered in this context. Likewise, employees will increasingly have expectations in return – ie what’s in it for me to be this brand ambassador, using my own kit in my own time? Another step away from a ‘command and control’ mentality that is probably more the culture from IC/HR/legal etc than it ever has been from PR which has understood the nature of earning understanding over many decades.

    1. Heather, I’m in agreement with Helen Reynold’s concept of the guidelines being a foundation backed up by training and support. The challenge, as I see it, is that social media is still so new, untested and evolving as communication—rather than straight marketing–channels that many, many organizations do not have a foundation as yet.

      Just like when I introduced the style guides, sometimes the document is the starting point, rather than the end one. I didn’t indicate it in the post, but both style guides were based on the industry-standard documents produced by the Canadian Press, but personalized to each organization’s own identification and needs. That’s why I indicate there isn’t a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to social business guidelines, because each business or organization is different.

      I agree with what you say about how social media guidelines and their usage must have an implicit understanding that buy-in from employees is critical. And this includes honesty in “relating the inside out.” You can’t make a social media silk purse out of a public relations sow’s ear, no matter how comprehensive the guidelines. And if the engagement and communication are mandated rather than coming from a place of authenticity of honesty, that will show as well. Of course if the CEO/corporate communication department has a barn-sized ego or is a “command-and-control” type of individual/department, the guidelines of this sort will never get introduced—the organization will stick to a cautionary/punitive social business policies mindset.

      So guidelines drawn-up from an organization that already has a great culture have an advantage from the get-go. Again, guidelines or expectations from an organization with a crappy culture are going to be less effective. What’s the point of having an employee “resource” if staff know that they smack of tokenism? It’s simply another document for the CEO and/or corporate communication department to tick-off the “to-do” list and report to the board and public as having been done, similar to the newsletter/magazine and/or annual report.

  4. Judy,

    Thank you very much for a well-written and information-rich essay on this topic. Getting departments outside of corporate communications involved is always an excellent idea, both from the buy-in from colleagues as well as a better understanding of how those departments may wish to use those channels, both from a formal, public-facing mouthpiece as well as employee “ambassadors.”

    I’ve always viewed employee guidelines for social media as an “interpretive statement” between HR and legal codes of conduct, as well as information security policies, and what employees are able to do in social networks. Any code of conduct or security policy worth its salt will talk about how staff can and should conduct themselves in online forums, but I’ve found that folks often don’t make the logical leap to Facebook, Twitter, etc., as most of what they put there is, to them, considered “private.” This is especially critical if employees have access to social media accounts from computers and mobile devices given to them by their employer, as there is no reasonable right to privacy from those machines. Not to mention, the 24/7 nature of social media means how employees conduct themselves on those channels off the clock can now matter just as much as when they’re on the clock.


    1. Mike, thank you for visiting PR Conversations and weighing in.

      It’s interesting that you characterize my post an “essay”—which I actually like, because an essay speaks to thoughtfulness or mindfulness and this is definitely a practical document that is based on my own experience and thinking regarding the importance of making employees feel included and listened to regarding guidelines and procedures that impact and hopefully influence their behaviours and them…

      “Interpretive statement” is such a great way to characterize it. And this was followed by the Sunday broadcast of the CBC Radio Spark show, where Nora Young asked subject expert, Simon Reader, whether different channels lend themselves to a different, new form of speaking/writing, which may vary from channel to channel.

      So…if we take your great term and combine it with Nora Young’s query, you’ve actually provided me with yet another way of thinking about this: social media are forms of communication. Everyone communicates, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes we have language barriers, both in terms of which languages and where they are being made use of. If we think of social media being in some ways like a foreign country that staff are visiting, just like a translation book—or app—we can also think of social business guidelines as being a similar resource to consult to assist in the communication.

      Some will be more skilled than others in interpreting and learning new languages. Some will take to the language and rapidly gain familiarity and ease. But the guidelines or interpretive document, at a minimum, will provide the basics necessary for needs and wants expressed by all. If in a foreign country: how to travel around, suggestions on where to eat, where the toilets are located, and basic greetings of hello and goodbye and thanks.

      You are right about the perceived but increasingly barriers between business and private, but if the social business guidelines are done well, they should help employees becoming smarter about communicating in any channel at any time, whether on their company-owned devices or personal ones.

      Thank you for adding to this discussion, as well as my own evolving thought process.

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