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Do You Need a Social Media Policy?

September 22, 2011

Yes. Will your organizational structure allow you to create one that will be effective and useful? That’s more difficult to say, especially if you work in government. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an advocate for policy, especially when it comes to emerging technologies. It has nothing to do with being adverse to policy, but has everything to do with the bureaucratic procedures and staffing that make many policies – both in corporate America and in our government – ineffective.

When it comes to social media policy, often the best bet for many organizations is just to adapt existing policy to the social media realm. Within the military there are specific regulations addressing operations security and service-member behavior – both of these arenas have implications in social media, and either can be used to address social media issues. For a time, we can operate in a policy umbrella where we’re interpreting policy to address technologies that are on the horizon. But at some point things need to get a bit more explicit. I think that time has likely come for many government agencies.

A recent Government Accountability Office report chastised offices for a lack of defined policies and procedures to address social media. Even the Department of Defense, which has come out in front of many other agencies when it comes to social media, isn’t above criticism. Social media policy, like any emerging area, doesn’t happen overnight. If it does, it’s probably not going to be well formulated and effective. But it should emerge and evolve over time, in a series of stages and by asking a few questions:

1. What policies already cover this arena? When it comes to social media, a variety of policies often converge – you have IT, communications, legal, and a cross-section of offices and arenas involved. All too often each of these departments or directorates wants to craft their own, new policy. The best thing is to sit at the table together and look at how existing policies already address the issue. Social media is communication – actions taken using social media are punishable under UCMJ, for the military, and risks taken on networks are punishable within existing G-6 (military IT) policies.

2. What best practices should we institute in the interim? I’ve always been a much bigger proponent of social media goals and best practices over policy. Best practices don’t carry the weight of policy but they offer very real, actionable steps that can be taken within your organization. In many ways they’re also taken more seriously than policy, because they can (and should) be written in laymen’s language and with a timeliness and immediacy you’ll never see in government issued policy.

3. Where do we need to change our current policies? Chances are you don’t really need a new policy for social media – but you will need to make some changes to existing policies to address the changing frameworks of social media, including what constitutes proper records keeping and what is acceptable employee behavior.

The real first step when it comes to social media policy is educating your stakeholders and getting your leadership on board – which is why I’m such a huge proponent of instituting social media education programs that get at the highest levels of leadership and bring them on board with social media. Then, when and if the day comes that you need to generate an entirely new policy framework to address social media or emerging technologies, you’ll have the support you need to push it forward and get it implemented.

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