Digital Daydreams and Networked Nightmares….and Social Media Policies

Lately, social media policies and guidance have been recurring themes in things I have been reading. Some has been wise stuff, but wise or not, a lot of it was contradictory. I thought I’d see what happened when I tried to write about it, in an attempt to get a few things straight in my mind. Note that point well, please. I am not trying to write a social media policy. I am trying to get some points clear to myself about social media policies in general.

I worked for an organisation that went several years without any formal, written “social media policy document”. That may still be in that position – I’ve not asked. I added the word “document” there quite intentionally. I think there will be many organisations like that. In reality, they do have a policy or policies about social media, but they have just never captured or consolidated them on paper. So far so good? Well, that had me thinking. If it’s not gathered, organised, drafted, refined, shared in-house and maintained, can you really call it a “policy” at all? Isn’t there, for example, the likelihood that such an organisation will just be making rules up as it goes along? And what will those be based on? Will they be related to a careful prior view of what the organisation is about, what it intends to put into social media, what it hopes to get out of it? Will they be based on, or even acknowledge, perceived best practice elsewhere? Or will those rules be a constantly moving quicksand of precedent, fears (rational or otherwise), organisational culture/hierarchy/power struggles, and even ultimately, regurgitated myths, legends and folklore?

There seemed to me at the time I was there, relatively few dis-benefits in having no single place in the organisation that one went for “chapter and verse” on how to approach social media use. Okay, social media was a little bit more of a frontier town then than it is now, and it might have taken some bold thinking, and more than a few leaps of faith, to capture the whole organisation’s needs in one document back then. However, at the same time, there were people elsewhere who felt they had managed this to their own organisation’s satisfaction, and had even made their work freely available to others. Several of these so-called social media policies were perhaps, to quote Basil Fawlty, statements of the “bleedin’ obvious”. That point was made to me several times when I started to suggest our own organisation might actually be well-served by the discipline and potential insight of constructing some form of policy, guidance, rules, or whatever.

But obvious to whom? There were all kinds of reasons, methods and motives that led to people in our organisation becoming interested in social media. Some wanted to dabble and see whether there was value. Others were already persuaded and wanted to reap the benefits. Could there ever be something that set out clearly and succinctly some adequate guidance for both camps? It goes without saying that these were not the only camps, either. If there was a need to teach skills, was that the role of a policy statement? Probably not. But if the need was to identify good practice and set boundaries around its use, was that the role of trainers? Again, in my view, no. Was it not evident that a policy document was quite a useful way to bridge theory and practice, aspiration and reality? Wasn’t it a good way to set expectations show how social media might be relevant to the many working practices of the organisation to whose stakeholders such relevance had not yet dawned?

If what you had instead was a set of tensions between “JFDI” culture and reputation-management fears, between nurturing innovation and appeasing die-hards, even between younger members of staff and their elders, how could anyone be clear what was a) expected and b) allowed (if you will again permit me to boil the issues down to their most basic)?

Looking back, I can see that not having any form of recognised social media policy statement was ultimately likely to prove a bad thing. It meant two crucial questions couldn’t be answered. They were basically “What’s allowed around here?” and “What’s not allowed around here?”. That sounds unintentionally black and white. The truth is there are many shades of grey that also went unanswered, such as “What’s expected around here?” or “Where do I go for advice?”

Having thus persuaded myself that, liberal though I am on many things, I’m in favour of social media policies, I started thinking about what sort of policy I’d favour? Not specifically what content, but what scope, tone, voice, length etc.

I’ll not embarrass those whose encyclopedic policies have come my way in the last 18 months or so, but I’m happy to share this, from the Citizenship Foundation  and this, quoted on the Forbes website . Both are at the other end of the scale, and are examples of other, briefer routes. The first of these deals specifically with issues arising when “someone” says “something” online about an organisation. It’s novel and a model for advice on other situations. I dislike the “policy” quoted in Forbes quite a lot, however. It’s a sham. It needs an article to explain what it means, and ends up basically admitting that it’s just a gimmicky way to manage an organisation’s reputation. However, what it, and the Citizenship Foundation flowchart both have in common, is that they show how social media creates a need for a multi-faceted set of advice, guidance, rules, remedies and outlooks. That is to say, I might concede that a social media statement for, say, community engagement, might need to look and feel different to one dealing with media relations.

But I will admit to not yet having reached any conclusion about how to balance “length vs brevity”, “generality vs specificity” or even “rules vs guidance”. The journey continues.

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