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Social Media Guidelines. What exactly are they? How should they be written? Do we need them? How do we enforce them?  We’ve had this discussion a lot this year. From the firestorm that erupted upon the release of the Washington Post’s social media guidelines to the equally riveting conversation surrounding ESPN’s social media policy.

This was one of the biggest tasks I tackled for my company this year as head of our social media task force, and the approach we took seems to be working well. Because of my experience with this, I decided to kick off the lists for 2010 which are certainly to come in droves over the next few weeks. So here is my personal list of social media guidelines that I strongly discourage anyone from adopting across the board.

Don’t be Stupid!

This is an all-encompassing statement that you may think conveys trust in your employees but what it really does is set them up to fail. Let’s consider the word “stupid.” What exactly is the definition? This term is way too subjective and is often based on one’s sense of humor. My interpretation of the word will differ from yours. So imagine how many variations of stupid exist in a room of hundreds?

Consider this: Is it “stupid” to tweet that you had a bad day at work as long as you don’t provide details as to who contributed to that bad day?

Is it stupid to announce that you’ve acquired a new client? It may not be a smart move from the perspective of top management, but an employee who closed a deal may think that putting that out in the universe is a good move and could potentially attract more clients.

That’s the problem with merely issuing this edict. Stupid must be defined, and that means actually putting thought into a strategy to provide your staff with guidance and expectations.

You always represent the company!

Again, what exactly does “always” mean? Does the employee represent the company only when they are “clocked-in” during working hours? Are they representative of the organization on the weekends, during vacation? While the word “always” indicates infinity for some, there are many employees who disassociate themselves from their employers the minute they leave the premises. Sure, the die-hard company man and woman will get this because they are used to representing the company, especially if they’re a manager. You have to be clear with this type of directive. If everything that the employee posts on every social network represents the company then spell it out. Provide a definition that will leave little room for misunderstanding.

Be smart!

This is very similar to “Don’t be stupid.” However, it is more of a “we trust you” than the former. Translation: We are not going to spend our time worrying about this because you guys know how to conduct yourselves. But if you don’t, there will be consequences.”

Consequences for what? Not being smart? I might think it’s smart to share some details about the latest company-wide initiatives, especially if we are striving for “transparency.”  What? That initiative was confidential? I didn’t know. Guess that wasn’t very smart of me, was it?

(See, “Don’t be stupid.”)

We’re watching!

Scare tactics are a sure way to create bad blood between employer and employee. Maybe you are watching, and that’s fine, but is that how you want to rule, with fear? Consider providing tips on how the staff can use social media in ways that reflect well on the company, and watch that. In many cases highlighting favorable behavior is preferable than a detailed list of “don’t.” Encourage and reward the good, don’t hunt down the bad.

Add value!

Again, great intention that can be poorly executed due to misinterpretation. What is value? If my network of friends, followers and readers are all vegetarians, they’d be happy to know that I made an amazing vegetarian dish last night that would make Martha Stewart proud. Is that valuable to my company? Maybe, maybe not. It might be if our overall social media mission statement includes being personable and having fun so that people get to see that side of our staff. But let’s say I work for a huge meat manufacturer and they see me promoting the vegan lifestyle all across the social web. Is that a faux-pas in this case?

Please don’t think this is extreme. This is all still so very new and there will be instances when the most mundane issues take the forefront and cause a meltodwn or chain reaction that seems impossible to turn around.

So there you have it. Five ineffective social media guidelines for 2010 and beyond. Now, could you combine some of these and create a more cohesive message for your staff? Absolutely, but do stay away from the one-liners that lack context, and do allow your guidlines to evolve.

My biggest piece of advice here is to first start with a social media mission statement.

When you’re clear on your reasons for being in the space, the guidelines to support that mission will come.

Good luck.



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