An absolute essential for any business or organization – regardless of the state of its current involvement in social technology – is a cohesive policy-driven approach to participation in social media and other forms of social computingby its employees.

You might be thinking, “My company doesn’t use social media – we aren’t on Twitter or Facebook or anything like that. Why do we need social computing policies?” The answer is simple: your firm may not be, but your employees are.

Consider the current situation in the Gulf of Mexico: content circulating on the Web ranges from BP’s own “branded crisis management” to rogue (aka, “fake”) social presences likeBPGlobalPR on Twitter. That was expected as part of the larger interest in the current efforts to close the blown-out undersea well. The value of social media policies, communicated in advance to all employees, is relevant here. Here’s how it fits together, and why it gives rise to a best practice.

First, most every business or organization has a current set of communications protocols and brand standards which, effectively or not, are intended to establish a common understanding of the correct use of brand assets, standard practices in speaking about or on behalf of the company, the presentation of “corporate values” to clients, etc. (Social media, used by employees outside of the office, potentially impacts every one of these.)

It’s for this reason that, as a marketing manager (or legal counsel or HR manager), you must implement a social computing policy. In the case of BP, its employees may well understand that any inquiry by a member of the formal press regarding the leaking well is to be referred to corporate communications, with no further comment. But what happens when that same employee, at home, using a personal account on Twitter, sees the fake “BPGlobalPR” Twitter page? Is this employee allowed to call it out as fake? To respond or correct a misstatement? In short, are employees permitted to defend their employer in the same way that any employee, of any firm, might do?

To be sure, the communications policies a business or organization set are its own to decide. Current social computing and social media policies range from an outright prohibition of employee participation on the social Web, including at home (yes, some firms do this), to the more open – and very much informed – use of social media by Zappos, Dell, and IBM. Zappos encourages employees to participate. Dell builds disclosure into the social media handles of employees: “@StefanieAtDell” runs @DellOutlet. IBM’s policies clarify that employees using social media should refrain from using “we” and instead use “I” when publishing posts or comments that might relate to the workplace. At SAS Institute, employees using Twitter include a statement to the effect “these views are (mine) and not those of SAS” in their profile.

These are all solid examples of how to smartly approach social media and its use by employees. It’s essential that your employees understand the rules, ahead of time. Situations involving employees and social media will arise. If you don’t have social computing policies in place now, consider making this a priority.

Where do you start? First, visit IBM’s page on social computing policies. Social computing policies are not a “one size fits all” proposition, but reviewing IBM’s and other firms in your own industry is a great place to start. Then, go meet your legal team: show them the policies of other firms like yours and the best practices of firms like IBM’s and ask them to draft a set. Champion this effort and sell it in through HR.

Not only will you do yourself a lot of good – in the process, you will become the organization-wide go-to person for smart decisions involving social media – but you’ll also set in place a larger team of people within your organization that understands how social media can be responsibly brought into the business. That’s a huge win, and it sets you and your team up for further advances as you push from social media-based marketing to a more holistic social business.

With your policies in place, the next hurdle you’ll likely face is what to do about employee social media in places like Facebook, where individual pages or pages of their friends may or may not reflect the kinds of activities that you want your customers seeing. I’m not saying…I’m just saying, as the expression goes.

In a recent workshop in Toronto, we talked about this very issue. Up, Inc.’s Catherine Sturm suggested connecting the business social Web presence to employees’ LinkedIn pages, and then specifically connecting the “About Us” or a similar social page on the corporate site – where holiday party pictures might be posted, for example – to the Facebook pages. This provides the flexibility employees and employers need, and sets the correct expectations for what one might find – as a client, for example – when visiting these larger, related social postings.

Finally, think about an oversight policy. For example, use your listening tools to monitor mentions of the brand. When you find them, affirm that any postings by employees are appropriately within your policies. If not, work with employees constructively to address any issues. Should you choose to go down this path, disclose this to your employees.

With social computing policies in place, not only will you sleep better, but you will implement positive steps in preparing your entire organization for an expanded use of social technology in business.

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