For a long time, PGAV Destinations just didn't need to get into social media. The firm, which designs attractions for zoos, museums, aquariums, and cultural sites, has been in business since 1967, and to this point, never felt the push to jump online.
"It's not really a super large industry, so it's easy to identify your clients and your market, and find them and talk to them about your services," said PGAV's Director of Business Development and Research Ben Cober.
But now, thanks to the growing market and opportunities only the internet can offer, the firm is ready to make its foray into social media. In the ramp up, Cober helped the company put together a social media policy to guide the company and its employees in social spaces on the web.
To assist other companies, we've put together several points to remember when building a social media policy that, as Gartner analyst Jennifer Polk put it, creates "expectations with a healthy dose of what can be monitored, managed, and enforced realistically."
1. Understand your workforce
Polk said it's important to acknowledge that your employees are using social media, whether for personal use or not, at home or at work. Email communications product Contatta, also found itself creating social media policy, recently. Director of Communications, Brenda Christensen said the company took into consideration the fact that many employees not only had experience online, but had established presences on social media. "I wanted to have respect for that instead of coming down from the mountain top with the two tablets and saying, 'These are the 10 social commandments,'" she said.
2. Understand your own needs
For Cober, when thinking of what to include in the social media policy, he had to think of the nature of his company's industry. "A lot of the theme parks like to keep very top secret their really exciting, great rides that are coming out in two, three, four years, so we need to be very careful about how we converse with the public, with our clients about what we do and what we work on," he said.
Merely mentioning a specific client is working with PGAV might clue in a competitor that the park is planning something. On the more serious end, Tatiana Melnik, an attorney who specializes in information technology and intellectual property, talked about how businesses like medical practices have to be aware of how their social media policies play into their industry's legal regulations, like HIPAA compliance.
3. Be collaborative where possible
Being collaborative can work in two ways. On a practical level, Polk recommends bringing together departments like legal, human resources, and marketing into discussions of how social media should be used (and not used), how the company should be discussed (and not discussed) and what should be expected (and not expected) from employees.
For a company launching its first policy, being collaborative with employees can also help the implementation of the policy. Christensen sought input from employees who are bloggers, or already have online followings. "If you open it up for collaboration internally and have people contribute to a document, it gives them a sense of ownership," she said.
Melnik also said that running the policy by a technical department can help determine if the things that the company might want to do, like blocking sites, perhaps, or using certain filters, is actually possible, even from a financial perspective. "You don't want to promise you're going to be doing something that you're not doing," she said.
4. Balance the "can" and "can't"
Cober said his company decided to split the policy into two documents. The first is the hard and fast rules — the actual policy that employees need to abide by if they plan on engaging in social media in any way. This includes but is not limited to items like being transparent and identifying as a company employee, don't comment on behalf of the company, or start social media accounts on behalf of the company, and not checking in via social media at client sites. After all, a corporate policy is a corporate policy. The second is guidelines containing best practices like encouraging employees to always add value and write well.
The company's social media policy and guidelines also include an explanation. "I think that really helps for anyone who has to adopt any kind of social media policy, like how families have family rules — when you understand why the rules are in place, it's a lot easier to get on board with them," he said.
Along those lines, Christensen said Contatta also offers guidelines that respect employees' social styles, but acknowledge that the company also has a corporate style and voice of its own that has to be maintained, as well as advice on how to do that while interacting with the brand on social media. Polks calls these "constructive guardrails."
5. Don't get hung up on platforms
Polk said that with larger companies, there can be the need to keep the policy somewhat vague, as it's futile to try and not only predict but police every situation. "You never build a social media policy or strategy based on platforms, you always base it on communications, just like you would for any other part of your strategy, because platforms change and evolve, they come and they die," Cober said. The consistency at the policy's foundation will give the policy a longer life.
6. Run it by legal
Melnik outlined a few areas where having a lawyer review the social media policy is important. For one, a lawyer can review all existing policies and make sure the social media policy does not create any contradictions. If an employee handbook forbids any discussion of a company, then there's no sense in a social media policy that advises on how to talk about the company online.
A lawyer can also catch potential problems, like encouraging hourly employees to help promote the company when they're technically not on the clock, or checking for any applicable state laws with which the company should comply.
Melnick also brought up The National Labor Relations Board. "That's something that companies really need to be aware of, because in the last couple years, the NLRB has been very active in pursuing companies who they see as violating employee rights to discuss their working conditions," she said.
7. Distribute it
For some companies, their social media policy is rolled into codes of conduct. That can mean that employees don't necessarily see the policy again. Polk encourages making sure current employees are familiar with a new policy, and stay informed of any changes in the future. Contatta was able to use its own product, which Christensen said is a blend between Hootsuite, Contact Manager, and Yammer to distribute the policy to employees, as well as set up workrooms where employees could chime in. "It's not possible to over-communicate these types of things," Christensen said.
PGAV's policy is still being reviewed by legal. Cober said they will most likely have employees sign the policy, as well as hold a period of time where they can ask questions about the policy. The company also has sessions called "lunch and learn." Their new social media policy could possibly be an upcoming topic of the event.
8. Update it
Once the policy is written, it's important not to abandon it. Depending on issues and usage, Polk recommended an annual review. "This is a living, breathing document that we all contribute to and that we'll modify as things change and progress, so make it an ongoing collaborative process," Christensen said.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.