How to approach social media policies successfully

//How to approach social media policies successfully

Are you looking for a Social Media Policy? Are Social Media Policies worth it? Wikipedia defines social media as “media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable communication techniques. Social media is the use of web-based and mobile technologies to turn communication into interactive dialogue.”. It is therefore a method of communicating by anyone using web-based and mobile technologies.

Social media v industrial media v new media

Social media is different to “industrial media” which refers to professionally produced radio program and TV. Moreover, the words “social media” and “new media” are often used interchangeably.  They are different.  “New media” is a form of communicating in the digital world which includes publishing on CD-ROM, DVD and most significantly, the Internet.  It implies the use of desktop and laptop computers as well as wireless, handheld devices.

Approches to social media policies

A social media policy is a document which sets out the company’s views on social media. There are different approaches to social media policies:

  • guidelines of principles-based approach (for example Coca-Cola whose approach is based on the core values of the company, their expectations of their associates’ personal behaviour in the social media arena (those who speak “about” the company) and their expectations of their people (who speak “on behalf of” the company).
  • “big stick” approach (for example the Commonwealth Bank in Australia)
  • educational, regulatory and framework based approach where these three elements are wrapped up into one social media policy.
  • a hybrid approach (our approach) which is a combination of the Coca-Cola and Jacobson approach with a twist (as explained below).

Does one actually need a standalone social media policy?

Before we explain our hybrid approach, a company must ask whether it needs a standalone Social Media Policy or whether it should form part of an existing policy?

The “standalone v existing policy” debate resurfaces every time the next major wave of technology hits the workplace.  A similar debate arose a few years ago when memory sticks and portable hard drives became more commonly available and used in the workplace: did one need a specific “Portable Media Storage Policy” or would the issues arising from the use of memory sticks and portable hard drives form part of a company’s existing Information Security Policy.

When it comes to the drafting of any corporate policy (be it an IT Policy, HR Policy or Information Security Policy), best practice requires that companies have a formal, structured approach to developing and maintaining all their policies. A Social Media Policy, should therefore not exist in a “policy vacuum”.  It should be a “cog” that fits into an “existing wheel” and slot seamlessly into the company’s existing policy framework.

What does this translate into?

There is no general consensus as to what policies, or how many, should be in place within an organisation, nor is there broadly useful guidance on policy content, design or management.  Some companies use a single, generic policy document (that may combine policy, standards and guidelines), while others have multiple policy, standard and guideline documents that are specific and highly granular.

Policies v guidelines

When one drills down into the detail, experience has taught us that it is best to separate policies from guidelines as they are distinct from one another.  Policies are management instructions indicating a predetermined course of action, or a way to handle a set problem or situation.  They are high-level statements that provide guidance to employees who must make present and future decisions based on the policy statement.  Policies are mandatory and can be thought of as the equivalent of “company specific laws”.  Because compliance is required, policies use definitive words like “must not” or “you must”. Policies are distinct from, but similar to guidelines, which are optional and recommended.  Guidelines are desirable in some cases but not in others.

Michalsons approach

Our approach entails a six-step approach:

  1. Adopt a formal, structured approach to developing and maintaining policies (for example see the article on our information security framework).
  2. Identify what policies exist and decide what is most appropriate for the company: to have a standalone social media policy or add social media policy statements to the company electronic communications policy (ECP), Internet usage policy, email policy or computer usage policy (all of which are suitable policies for housing social media policy statements).
  3. Make sure that your social media policy (if standalone) or statements (if added to an existing policy) should form part of the company’s overall social media legal strategy.
  4. Separate the policy statements from guidelines.
  5. Include “Online Social Media Principles” for companies official spokesmen who are authorised to speak “on behalf of the company”.
  6. Implement a proper social media education and awareness program. We cannot emphasise enough the importance of educating employees about the social web and social media and the legal risks posed.

Characteristics of successfully social media policies

Irrespective of whether you choose a standalone social media policy or incorporate policy statements in an existing policy or policies, remember that (in our experience),social media policies that are successfully implemented typically are:

  • concise and to the point;
  • developed to meet a business need or compliance requirement, or to address a real risk that the enterprise has identified;
  • compatible with the company’s organisational culture (and therefore be likely to be widely accepted and supported);
  • well communicated and accessible;
  • supported by management;
  • kept up-to-date and reviewed regularly for applicability and relevance;
  • are drafted in plain language.

You can also read more about our social media law services.


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