by Michael C. Lowe | February 01, 2013

Establishing a social media policy for your organization is critical, says Barbara Dunn, St. Louis-based attorney and partner with Howe & Hutton Ltd. “A good policy will be crafted to fit your specific organization’s needs,” Dunn notes, “and it will offer advice on how staff members should use these online tools, along with steps to take in a social media emergency” — say, a rogue tweet or a defamatory Facebook post.

“The important thing is to have processes in place and have a clear understanding of how things are supposed to be done and, when they aren’t, how to handle them,” says Mark Coindreau, senior manager of public relations with the San Antonio-based American Payroll Association. Here are some tips from Coindreau for those tasked with drafting a social media policy.

Be inclusive. When Coindreau was helping to craft the APA’s guidelines, he invited everyone to the table to chime in. “Try to include as many people as you think it might impact,” he says. “We tried to get at least one person from each department so nobody felt like they were excluded. That helps with buy-in and the approval process down the road.”

Pick and choose platforms. With so many different social media tools in the marketplace, it may be worthwhile to focus on only using sites that your audience, customers or clients frequent the most. Coindreau used online surveys and questionnaires to help the APA determine which sites they wanted to educate their staff about. By focusing efforts on just Facebook and Twitter, for example, staff members can slowly acclimate themselves to the world of social media, rather than getting bombarded by Flickr, Pinterest and Google+ as well.

Decide what’s fair game. It’s important to set clear lines that identify what is and isn’t OK to communicate to the public. Coindreau says the guidelines should clearly set the parameters for what are considered confidential materials being passed around or discussed at meetings. “We tell our employees not to say anything over social media that they wouldn’t say at a conference, but in the end, if we want them to get on Facebook or Twitter, we just have to put a lot of trust in them.”

Determine disciplinary measures. Some organizations might want to create specific penalties for social media-related violations such as disclosing trade secrets, while other organizations might already have those rules built into other guidelines or an employee handbook. According to Coindreau, the APA does not have specific consequences for social media-related infractions, but will refer to their employee handbook if something questionable occurs.

Set a crisis management strategy. When something goes awry, “organizations can get caught like a deer in the headlights,” says Dunn. To avoid such situations, companies should create a crisis management plan in case an employee posts something inappropriate or receives a negative or defamatory comment on a Facebook page. Having steps in place will allow staff members to react prudently and appropriately in a timely manner, rather than scrambling around for an answer on the spot or, even worse, making an hasty and uninformed decision.

Anticipate negative commentary. According to its guidelines, the APA strives for transparency and credibility on its social networks, so the association never deletes a post, even if it’s particularly negative, notes Coindreau. Instead, social media monitors will respond to the member both privately and publicly to try and sort out the situation. 

Ask a lawyer. It’s a good idea to consult a legal expert to make sure you and your organization are familiar with any possible issues of liability.