How to develop a sensible social media policy

How to convince the naysayers in IT, HR, and the Legal Department that social media is a necessity.

When Paula Berg, now of Linart PR, was managing social media for Southwest Airlines, she had a clearly stated mission: “Complete integration of social media into every internal and external communication effort in a way that makes sense for our company and meets customer expectations.”

What she didn’t have was a social media policy.

“Thirty-five thousand employees and our policy was, ‘Call Christie,'” she told an audience at Ragan Communications’ 2012 Social Media for PR and Communications Conference in Las Vegas.

That may have been OK a few years ago, but things don’t work that way anymore, Berg said. Your company needs a policy that can appease all the parties that impede its becoming a vital part of the organization.

Often those parties—HR, IT, Legal—are represented on the company’s social media task force, which wouldn’t exist, if Berg had her way.

“It’s well intentioned, but it’s usually about 30 people from the company who know nothing about social media,” she said. “They’re slow. They’re redundant.”

Members of task forces generally aren’t open to new ideas, and they hold meetings that accomplish nothing. In their stead, Berg said, there should be social media dictators who set out the rules and policies. That’s unlikely to happen, so you’ve got to figure out ways to help members of the team relax.


The human resources department is often most concerned that allowing employees to use social media will result in a loss of productivity. But here’s the truth: Employees have smartphones. They’re using social media whether HR allows it or not, and they’re exceedingly productive in their personal networks because they don’t limit their own social media use. Loosening the social media reins in the workplace could translate to greater staff productivity through professional networking.

On top of that, it’s basically impossible to block all social media. Ask your skeptical HR colleagues: Are they blocking The Wall Street Journal and its comment sections?

“Almost every site has some sort of functionality built into it,” Berg says. “You’re somewhat delusional to think you can block all these things.”

Calling your HR colleagues delusional isn’t the best approach. Show some facts instead. An employee survey at AT&T found that employees use social media to do work faster: 65 percent said it made them more efficient workers, 46 percent said it gave them more ideas, 38 percent said it helped for finding solutions to problems, and 36 percent said it enabled them to gain knowledge about customers.

Blocking social media also blocks potential revenue. Use Southwest as proof. Employees made $500,000 in sales when they posted links to sales only on Twitter and Facebook.

“If you’re ignoring [employees], you’re really ignoring opportunities for revenue generation,” Berg says.

Social media is also a great place to conduct recruiting, with lots of opportunity, but Berg warned that the social media pool doesn’t represent the full ocean of potential applicants, and employers have to be careful about what information people share online.

“A combination of common sense and a clear recruitment policy is essential,” she said.


Information technology specialists often bring up the objection that social media will result in an untenable spike in bandwidth use, but it’s just not so. Posting to social media websites and playing games via social media accounts for all of 1 percent of bandwidth use at most companies.

IT also often frets about security, which is a legitimate concern. But the old assertions that some sites are valid for business and others are not simply don’t fly anymore. (OK, in some cases they still do.) But who’s to say Facebook isn’t a business website?

Even so, Facebook poses some valid security concerns. Here’s Berg’s key phrase:

“Don’t tell me no; tell me how.”


If you’re in a regulated industry, here’s the easy part: “Don’t do anything that violates regulation,” Berg says.

Beyond that, it’s a matter of balancing risk and reward. Many aspects of mixing social media and business haven’t been tested, and that tends to make lawyers nervous, Berg says.

But they’re coming around. Many are now worried about protecting employee rights. Berg cited the National Labor Relations Board’s social media’s guidelines that bar employers from prohibiting employees from making negative comments about the company, posting pictures of themselves in their uniforms, using rude language, or discussing company business on personal accounts.

Handling employees

If you can’t prohibit employees from doing all that much, what do you do? Don’t make them the enemy, Berg said.

She cited the A&E reality show, “Airline,” which depicted the goings on at Southwest. The company had no control over what the network could and couldn’t show, she said, which led to some “white-knuckle moments.” But the exposure paid off. Job applications and revenue went up every time an episode aired.

“Warts and all, our employees did represent us well,” she said.

For the most part, employees aren’t malicious. If they mess up on social media, odds are they didn’t mean to.

“They’re not trying to damage your company,” Berg says. “They just have momentary lapses.”

Outline to your employees the keys of your social media policy—you should assume no one’s going to read it all the way through—make sure they know the restrictions of the field in which they work, and if they make a mistake, just talk to them about it.

How do you argue in favor of social media?

In her presentation, Paula Berg of Linart PR gave tips for ways to convince naysayers that social media is worthwhile. Different people respond to different things, she says, so know your audience, and use a combination of these techniques:

  • Use statistics.
  • Give them case studies from relevant, similar companies.
  • Play to their fears; show them the risk of not participating.
  • Use reverse psychology; don’t jam social media down their throats.
  • Give people time to figure things out for themselves.
  • Do social media audits.
  • Know how to respond to objections.

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