One of the hottest topics in social media right now is how to handle these rapidly emerging communications platforms in the context of a public company and corporate responsibility.
This is the Wild West of Internet communications and it’s getting wilder by the minute as people stream onto social media platforms and, inevitably figure out how to abuse it.
All communications, everywhere, all the time presents a nightmare scenario for corporate communications professionals. Where does the line cross between free speech and corporate responsibility? Between open community and terms of employment? How does a large company possibly monitor hundreds of thousands messages that may represent a permanent communication record?
In a recent article, I forecast that companies would have to provide strict guidelines and hierarchical lines of communication in this new era, just as it had in the old. Some readers disagreed, and the results remain to be seen, but in the last week, I’ve read about the first public revelations on internal guidelines that explicitly prohibit employees from engaging in online communications that could denigrate the reputation of the company. Some forbid employees from even revealing who they work for, in some social media situations.
Predictably, the first hard guidelines are coming from news organizations, where the lines between reporting and personal commentary cannot be blurred.
This week the Wall Street Journal posted ground rules for its employees on how to use Twitter and other social media platforms. The rules include:
  • Sharing your personal opinions, as well as expressing partisan political views, whether on Dow Jones sites or on the larger Web, could open us to criticism that we have biases and could make a reporter ineligible to cover topics in the future for Dow Jones.
  • Consult your editor before “connecting” to or “friending” any reporting contacts.
  • Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited.
  • Don’t disparage the work of colleagues or competitors.
  • Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter … if you are in doubt about the appropriateness of a Tweet or posting, discuss it with your editor before sending.
The New York Times internal guidelines caution:
“… personal blogs and “tweets” represent you to the outside world just as much as an 800-word article does. If you have or are getting a Facebook page, leave blank the section that asks about your political views.”
“Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill.”
“Just remember that we are always under scrutiny by magnifying glass and that the possibilities of digital distortion are virtually unlimited, so always ask yourself, could this be deliberately misconstrued or misunderstood by somebody who wants to make me look bad?
And the BBC took a similar approach when it said its employees:
  • Should not engage in activities on the Internet which might bring the BBC into disrepute.
  • Should not post derogatory or offensive comments on the Internet.
  • Should be mindful of the information they disclose on social networking sites. Where they associate themselves with the Corporation (through providing work details or joining a BBC network) they should act in a manner which does not bring the BBC into disrepute.
  • Cannot indicate where they are employed on their personal blogs.

Companies are not democracies and they have the right to employ people who do not want to cause them harm. Although the media companies were among the first to deploy strict guidelines on personal use of social media, the desire to maintain an untarnished reputation is no less important for other companies and we certainly see this practice become prevalent.

Missing from any of these published policies i– consequences. How far will companies go to reach into the public domain of free speech to protect their reputations? And what about disgruntled employees who have an axe to grind against an employer? Another prediction: Companies will begin offering monetary pay-outs to employees they dismiss, with the legal condition that they engage in no public communication to disparage the company.

I think we will soon see the first examples of companies punshing employees who violate these guidelines, setting the stage for new court cases examining the rights to free speech and the role of social media in our world.

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