Social Networking Policy: Who Should Craft It?

Don’t leave HR, legal, or marketing alone at a table for one to write your company's social networking policy. Consider this expert advice.
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Your organization needs a social networking policy, both for protection and to provide guidelines on the most effective ways to use social media. But the policy itself won't do its job unless the right people are at the table when developing it.

One thing you don't want is a "table for one." Experts agree that the right mix of people will depend on your organization and industry, but that having a mix is key.

"I believe a cross-functional approach to defining social media participation policy is best," said Brenda Stoltz, managing partner of Ariad Partners, a B2B marketing firm. "This is often a new area within a company and, as we know, change is hard. Having a team of people responsible for talking through the concerns and issues and drafting the company policy, and then evangelizing it internally, can go a long way toward the success of not only the policy but the social media program."

Having not only a mix, but a very high-level mix, also signals the importance and impact of social networking in business today, said Ethan McCarty, director of digital and social strategy at IBM and co-author of IBM's social computing guidelines.

"What's interesting to me right now, what's emerging, is that the position of social computing is moving even further into the center of business processes from the periphery," said McCarty. "Five, six years ago it was pretty easy to identify the bloggers, and now that's really not the case. Almost everybody is a participant in the world of social media. Certainly in our industry, whether it's casual use or power use, basically everybody is online."

The development of social computing policy at IBM is ongoing and involves senior-level stakeholders representing all areas of the company. "We have a social business management council at IBM that has senior-level folks on it who consider our policies and how other policies could affect our ability to gain advantage from social computing," said McCarty. "So, it's got our chief privacy officer on it, people from the CFO's office who evaluate financial risk and financial opportunities, and it's got one of our top-ranking HR leaders. That's an indication of how serious this is to us--we think of this as a really legitimate area of business that needs to be actively managed; it's not peripheral."

Trillium Software recently went through an internal social media policies and best practices effort to "more tightly hone" who should be involved in the ongoing program, according to Mike Antonellis, Trillium Software's director of corporate communications.

Like IBM, Trillium Software has put together a cross-company group of advisors to shape policies and the content used for social media. The company also identified the need to incorporate its social media policies into the overarching policies of its parent company, Harte-Hanks. "We created a social media policy initially, but drove that effort up into Harte-Hanks legal in order to incorporate our policies into the overarching Harte-Hanks handbook policies on external communication," said Antonellis.

While most experts agree that a social media policy should not originate from or end up in the legal department, it's important for any company to have legal's blessing. And, for companies in highly regulated industries such as health care and finance, it will be important to have input from compliance officers, as well.

Jim Tiller, global security practice head for professional services at British Telecom, has been providing direction to customers on the managers within an organization who should be involved in the development of the policy. While Tiller agrees that a mix of people should be involved in developing social networking policy at an organization, he said there is typically a driving factor--and possibly a driving person--behind the use of social networking at a company. Tiller said companies should acknowledge that and put that person or that person's department in the driver's seat when developing and evolving policy.

"Somebody needs to take the initiative--someone who has the broadest responsibility from the business perspective in terms of the role that social networking will play in the business," he said. "HR may be concerned about employee effectiveness and efficiencies; IT may be worried about performance and choking up systems and bandwidth; security may be worried about intellectual property being shared on the network; and, of course, marketing and communications are worried about how the company is being portrayed in social media. Each one has to contribute their areas of knowledge and concerns. But somebody needs to take a chairperson role--someone who has the firmest grip on what social networking means to the business."

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