Social media is a powerful tool for businesses that need cost-effective ways to grow their reach and engage customers. But with all of that power comes even more responsibility. From a management perspective, it’s important that you’re protecting your brand and avoiding unnecessary mistakes. What is a Social Media Policy? A social media policy is a formal set of guidelines that provides those within your organization expectations on what can be posted, who can post, and how different issues are handled. According to Jennifer Beese of Sprout Social, a social media policy tends to have two primary objectives: First off, a social media policy clearly explains what the company considers to be appropriate online behavior. Secondly, a social media policy safeguards employers from issues and social media crises that could damage the brand as a result of legal action or negative PR. A social media policy isn’t something that exists solely as an idea or expectation – it’s a tangible policy that’s physically written out, published, and shared for everyone within the organization to see. Some companies are even public about their social media policies in an effort to be as transparent as possible. If you’re looking for a framework to build your own social media policy on, you can check out some of these examples from big brands like Adidas, Best Buy, and Hewlett-Packard. You’ll notice that every social media policy is different – but every successful organization has one. Do you? Why Do You Need One? Most companies are aware that social media policies exist, but the disconnect occurs in terms of the “why?” Many entrepreneurs and business owners simply don’t see the value in taking the time to develop a social media policy. But let’s be clear about one thing: you desperately need one. #1. Personal vs. Professional Usage The manner in which employees conduct themselves online reflects on your brand positively or negatively. You need to make sure your employees understand this and include some language that clearly defines the difference between the personal and professional use of social media. Some companies like to give their employees brand-specific handles that clearly associate the individual with the brand. For example, someone working at The New York Times might have a Twitter handle like “@JohnNYT.” Other companies prefer for employees to use their own personal handles. You can do whatever you want, but this issue must be clearly addressed in your social media policy to avoid confusion and protect your brand. #2. IP Protection One of the biggest risks brands face on social media – especially for startups or companies that have proprietary products – has to do with intellectual property (IP). A single erroneous tweet or misguided Facebook post can open the doors to infringement of trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, and more. While a social media policy won’t legally protect your brand from IP infringement or unwanted disclosure, it can outline expected behaviors and prevent many issues from ever arising in the first place. According to Robert Klinck, a leading IP attorney in Washington D.C., a social media policy should outline and explain information about confidential and proprietary agreements; how confidential information is protected; how information can be used and stored; how IP – including trademarks, logos, and copyrights – are to be used; which company spokespersons are permitted to write and speak on behalf of the brand; and the appropriate steps for addressing IP infringement and/or defamation. #3. Employee Advocacy “A social media policy is especially important if employee advocacy is a priority,” Beese believes. “It’s important that everyone within your company is clear on the communication guidelines and principles. A strong social media policy will empower your team to take action and make educated decisions while representing your brand online.” While The National Labor Relations Act gives employees certain rights to engage in protected free speech when discussing working conditions online, this isn’t to say you can’t set up expected guidelines and behaviors regarding how you want employees to act online. Instead of prohibiting employees from saying certain things, your policy should show them on how you want them to act. #4. Disaster Plan What happens when someone says something offensive or discloses something that you didn’t want them to publicly discuss on social media? While a good social media policy prevents issues like these from happening in the first place, it also exists to create rules regarding how you’ll respond to disasters. (And if you don’t believe your brand is susceptible to a mishap, just check out some of these social media errors from last year.) With a social media policy in place, you don’t have to make rushed decisions. You know exactly when to delete a post, how to apologize, what to say, and how to discipline those involved. #5. Expectations At the end of the day, your company needs a social media policy in order to set expectations and show your employees that you take social media seriously. Otherwise, they won’t fully grasp the importance of their online actions and will be more likely to say and do things that don’t benefit the brand. Protect Your Brand You need to protect your brand at all costs. In today’s digital age, that means safeguarding your brand from social media mistakes and ensuring your team knows how to prevent problems and correct them after they arise. A social media policy isn’t a perfect solution, but it establishes a protocol for handling social networking the right way. Developing a legal social media policy that keeps employees on track and protects your brand isn’t always straightforward. You’ll need to abide by certain labor laws and be very specific with your wording. It’s best to involve as many people as possible and to have an independent party review it prior to implementation. Once you develop a social media policy, you’ll feel a huge rush of relief come over you. Instead of constantly walking on eggshells every time something is posted, you can relax knowing that you’re in good hands. It’s the smart thing to do in the current business landscape we operate in.