Social media rules of engagement for businesses

With more and more companies using social media for business, it's increasingly important for businesses to have a set of guidelines or rules of engagement which can ensure that employees know what to do when interacting online. It's equally important for managers and superiors to have these guidelines in place, as they may not be accustomed to the style of communication that social media requires. Too often companies jump on board with Twitter or Facebook, using these channels purely to send out marketing messages and press releases. And then they are surprised when the results aren't there. I ask: "Would you tune into a TV channel that was 100% commercials?" I think not. So it's no surprise that people are tuning out these constant sales messages. Here's my take on the rules of engagement for staff whose job it is to interact with people through social media and online communities. It may be their sole job, or part of their job. My version below is made up in large part from a great O'Reilly article in Forbes and AMP3 PR, who have done a great job in creating a working policy for their own employees - a big shout out to them!

Guidelines for Social Media in the Workplace

We expect everyone who participates in online commentary / social media to understand and to follow these simple but important guidelines. These guidelines cover all social media and online community platforms including but not limited to:

  • Social networking (such as Facebook, Foursquare, LinkedIn)
  • Micro-blogging sites (such as Twitter)
  • Blogs (including company and external blogs, as well as comments)
  • Video/photo sharing sites (such as Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo)
  • Online communities (forums, discussion boards)
  • Collaborative documents / wikis (such as Wikipedia)
  • Review sites (such as Qype, WeLoveLocal)

Social Web Guidelines for Employees

Pick & mix. Spend some time researching and reading up on various sites before deciding where it makes sense for you to spend the majority of your time online. You can't be everywhere, so pick sites which rank well and are well-visited by the company's target audience and/or connected to our core business. Then, feel free to mix in a smaller portion of less-popular sites or blogs when comments or topics warrant it.

Look before you leap. Read, read and read some more. Learn the landscape and individual style of conversations on that particular site - every site has its own (usually unwritten) rules and quirks. The quickest way to make a fool of yourself or get banned from a site is to dive in without first understanding the lay of the land.

Listen before you talk. Before entering any conversation, understand the context. Whom are you speaking to? Is this a forum for "trolls and griefers?" Is there a good reason for you to join the conversation? If your answer is yes, then follow these practices when engaging online:

Say who you are. Always be transparent about who you are and who you represent. Use your real name, identify who you work for and what your role is. You can disclose this on your About page or bio, and please also indicate that your opinions do not represent official positions of the company. If possible, include a link to the company website in this page and/or your signature - but only if this is allowed on that particular site. Use your best judgment to determine when this might be appropriate.

Show your personality. You weren't hired to be an automaton. Be conversational while remaining professional. Bring your own personal flavour and experiences to your postings: be YOU first and foremost, and an employee of the company secondly. Part of the whole point in having you communicate online in a work capacity is to provide a real, human face to the business.

Add value, not noise. Social media is about conversations, personal advice, recommendations and building relationships. It is not a sales channel or means for distributing press releases. Remember the 80/20 rule of thumb: 80% of your conversations should be about general topics relevant to the business and/or your own experiences, only 20% should be about the company's products or services.

Build a following. Promote yourself by finding and sharing information that will be interesting to your friends and followers and useful for them to share. Become a trusted part of the online community - not only by creating your own content, but sharing others’. Establish relationships online with other people you respect and trust.

Be responsive. If someone responds to something you’ve said, be responsive and follow-up quickly. If you say something in error, don't delete it, simply go back and update it with the correct information.

Know you’re always “On”. You represent the company at all times and you must assume that your social media usage is visible to customers, managers and prospects. Be careful what and with whom you are sharing. Keep in mind that while we all have the occasional work frustration, Facebook and Twitter are not the best venues in which to air them as those comments are available to your customers and coworkers.

Be respectful. Respond to ideas, not personalities. Don’t question motives, use profanity or demeaning language, or make remarks that are off topic or offensive. Always demonstrate respect for others’ points of view, even when they’re not offering the same in return. Take the high road: never pick fights and don’t say anything you wouldn't say to someone's face and in the presence of others. If you are sharing a negative experience or commenting on a brand or individual, please try to do so in a constructive way.

Don’t expect perfection. Do expect to make newbie mistakes, and don’t expect everyone to love you. No matter how nice, calm or inoffensive you are, and no matter how much research you do, there will be times when you will trip up and say something unpopular. It’s OK - shake it off and just remember that how you handle this is more important than the misstep itself.

Have full disclosure. If you are writing an advertorial or other sponsored content - or if you are contracting others to post on the company's social properties in exchange for money - make sure there’s a clear distinction between the normal / free content and any paid content. Today’s web users are savvy people, and hiding paid activities are a quick way to a bad online reputation.

Know your facts and always give proper credit. It’s OK to quote others, but never attempt to pass off someone else’s language, photography, or other information as your own. Always give proper attribution (by linkbacks, public mentions, re-tweets and so on). All copyright, privacy, and other laws that apply offline apply online as well. Be sure to credit your sources when posting a link or information gathered from another source.

Think ahead. Everything you say can (and likely will) be used in the court of public opinion--forever.  Be smart about protecting yourself, your privacy, and the company's confidential information. What you publish is widely accessible and will be around for a long time so consider the content carefully. Google has a long memory.

Be in it for the long haul. Don’t expect instant fame, audiences or popularity: building a trusted online presence takes time.

If you respond to a problem, you own it. If you become the point of contact for a customer or employee complaint, stay with it until it is resolved.

Play nice. We encourage you to connect with other employees and affiliates online. In doing so, we ask you to remember that sharing personal information about co-workers may affect them inside as well as outside of the office. All standard HR policies apply to interactions between colleagues across the social web.


If the above policy is not quite what your own company needs, have a look at this list of social media policies from a huge range of types of organisation, from non-profits through to large corporates. Or indeed check the online database of social media policies.