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By Adam Cohen
In my last blog entry, I discussed the critical need for business organizations to establish documented policies governing social media use by employees. Today I’d like to focus on one of the most important issue that such policies should address and identify some different approaches that companies take.
There is an old saying that “on the Internet, no one knows you are a dog.” This expresses the fact that anonymity in the eyes of other users is relatively easy to achieve, by omitting any self-identifying information or by affirmatively providing misleading information. When employees post social media content, whether through prior authorization by management or not, perception as to whether that content represents the views of the company is obviously something the company will want to control to the furthest possible extent.
The threshold gate-keeping issue in terms of compliance is whether the policy permits employees to post content without prior authorization from management. The policy should clarify that any restrictions on employee use of social media only apply to uses that may implicate the company, even though in practice identifying the range of such situations can be challenging. Businesses with substantial resources are likely to have dedicated resources, perhaps within their marketing or PR functions, tasked with implementing corporate social media strategy. Where this is the case, the members of the corporate social media group should be the first arbiters of what content is acceptable, of course subject to compliance and legal review.
However, other businesses may quite reasonably leave social media use decisions in the hands of specific business units. The basic issues are:
a) may employees post social media content representing the views of the company?
b) do these employees need prior authorization to do so?
c) and if so, from whom?
These policy choices have no single correct answer and will vary depending on the nature of the business in question. Nevertheless, apart from guidance regarding authorization for social media activity, it is essential that corporate policy educate employees regarding potential perceptions that their postings are official company views and provide guidance on how to deal with this reality. There are some choices to make here, the appropriateness of which will vary from business to business.
First, some companies require employees to maintain complete transparency with the respect to the fact that they are employed by the company. This could take the form of requiring employees to include in their basic “profiles” or personal information posted on social media sites that they work for the company. Once this identification is made, the danger arises that other users will associate the employee’s statements with the official views of the organization. Some companies therefore require employees to post an explicit disclaimer that their postings do not represent the official viewpoint of the company.
Often, the policies even provide specific language for the disclaimer the policy requires. It is worth noting that the danger of perceived association between a user’s social media postings with the views of the company is significantly heightened where the user in question is a senior executive. Especially where such executives are public personae from high profile corporations, this association is likely to be assumed by users.
The flip side of the representation coin, and the reason many companies place great emphasis on transparency, is the danger that employees will assume false identities or anonymity with the intention of helping the company. For example, an employee could post rave reviews of his company’s new products on a social media site while representing himself as an average consumer with no relationship to the company. If and when such dishonest marketing practices are uncovered, the fallout to the company can be disastrous. Therefore, it is important as an independent point that corporate policies discourage misleading behavior based on the pretense that the author of social media content has no relationship with the company.
The issues raised by employee communication of purported corporate views on social media involve an intertwining of sub-issues including authorization, transparency, disclaimers and false pretenses. The decisions made as to the substance of the related social media policies as well as the manner of their articulation will vary from business to business. Unfortunately, there are many other equally important issues decision-makers and drafters of social media policies need to consider carefully. Given the combustible mixture of the rapid proliferation of social media use and the potentially devastating consequences social media use can cause to corporate interests, policymakers are in the difficult position of having to make decisions quickly but with as much guidance as possible from different perspectives.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young.