Social media spurs review of policies

October 4, 2009
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Social media gives a public platform to anyone with Internet access — and that includes employees. As the use of online forums and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter grows, companies are questioning how to guide employees’ use of them.

“Who can tweet? Who can’t tweet? What can they tweet if they are tweeting?” said Michael Yoder, account manager with Otterbase, a supplemental staffing company. “If I represent Otterbase, even with my own personal Twitter I.D., what’s acceptable? Companies are scrambling to deal with that.”

Recently, a group of local social media experts gathered to discuss what kind of policy companies should form to deal with how their employees use social media. They also talked about how a company, as a whole, should interact with its consumers.

The group consisted of Yoder; Nehemiah "Nemo" Chu, an associate with Steve Robbins Group and marketing firm Spinneractive; Luke Robinson, Web manager at Calvin College; Paul Kortman, online marketing strategist for ddm marketing & communications; and Ian MacLurg, social media analyst for Pomegranate Studios and ArtPrize.

Those present, minus Chu, are part of a growing network known as the Grand Rapids Social Media Group.

Many employees are using social media both on and off the clock, and in both cases they represent the company they work for.

“The analogy we use in higher ed is, it’s the same as the student who puts a bumper sticker with your school’s name on their car,” said Robinson. “If they cut a person off on the freeway — that person represents your school and what it stands for. We’re just shifting from the physical into the digital.”

A company could write a 1,000-page rulebook on who can and can’t use social media and what they can and can’t say. GRSM representatives said, however, that the best policy is not to try to control what employees say but to develop a policy about how the company responds to what’s being written about them online.

“People are realistic; they know that there are issues. So if something goes out there, for a company to acknowledge it and apologize for it is bar-none, case-study proven, the best thing you can do,” said Kortman.

Since consumers will talk about companies on the Internet, the group suggests that companies join those conversations in a positive manner.

“You’re there whether you want to be there or not. You’re not in control of what people are talking about. The smart companies are going to listen, and then try to engage,” said Yoder. “You don’t control who’s saying what. You can control how you respond.”

Chu believes that interacting in meaningful ways will enlist a company’s followers to serve somewhat as customer service or human resource representatives on a company’s behalf.

“You’re going to have people that will yell at you, scream at you and hate your guts. But you’re also going to have your fans who will respond on your behalf. Imagine if a company responded on every single minor ‘I had a bad day; I’m yelling on Twitter.’ The company would not move anywhere. You need to rely on customers that are fans that love what you do.”

Each member of the group offered a key point for companies to keep in mind when creating a social media policy. MacLurg said the first step should be to look internally. If a company is going to engage in an open network like social media, the company has to be open itself. “If they just jump on there without thinking, they become spammers,” he said.

Robinson said he believes it is vital for companies to know their audience and to interact with them accordingly, while Yoder re-emphasized the importance of listening to what’s out there and then engaging in the conversation.

Kortman added that many companies most likely have an employee already participating in social media and should leverage that resource.

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