Social Media Boundary Issues

September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Social media is so new that the long term unintended consequences of its widespread use are still being figured out. What is it that drives teenagers to post photos of themselves hitting a beer bong? Why are people compelled to tweet that they will be on a two-week European vacation next week? Why would a doctor post the day’s events from the emergency room? Why do some teachers feel it is OK to friend their students on Facebook?

If you’re in the camp of people who think, “What’s the big deal?” then I worry about you. The problem isn’t with social media but rather with folks who don’t understand that the beer bong photo from college might not impress the HR director of ABC Corp later in life. Do you have no problem letting the world know about your extended vacation? Burglars love you. Do you think it is OK that your 6th grader’s teacher “Likes” little Johnny’s page and tweets him regularly? 

In a move that would suggest cooler heads prevail, the Dayton Public School District in Dayton County, Ohio has put strict limits on “friending” students who are on Facebook or any other social network, for that matter. In fact, the county also prohibits teachers from responding to students’ attempts at communicating through any personal or professional accounts not approved by the district including texts and instant messages. My personal opinion is I totally agree with this move and it is sad that local government had to get involved where common sense failed. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? What is it about social media that makes us throw common sense out the window? You could argue that this problem has been around since the advent of Bulletin Board Systems in the late ’80s and I would have to agree. However, social networks have taken things to an entirely new level of exposure that has no “undo” button. What happens in Vegas, stays on the Internet forever.

Ouch. I think I just twisted my ankle from my soapbox dismount. Whatever your opinion is on all this, we have to ask ourselves what the far reaching implications are so we not only manage our after-hours online personas properly, but also manage our career personas effectively. Furthermore, what about the social reputations of the brands we manage as marketing professionals? Are there any boundaries a brand steward must be aware of in the social ecosphere? You bet!

The potential for disaster is great but the potential for creating a positive reputation for your brand is even greater. Large brands tend to struggle with social media because of the very nature of it: it’s immediate and doesn’t have time to wait for your legal team to approve a tweet. You have to get in the pool and splash around. You might get someone wet and they just might complain about it. Some industries stay on the sidelines and don’t do much of anything. This is especially prevalent in the healthcare and financial industries that are tightly regulated when it comes to privacy. In these cases, avoid discussing things that happen around the office or in the emergency room and stay focused on community building, customer/patient education, and fundraising, for example.

To reduce risk, the key to a large organization using social media, both publicly and internally, is having a written strategy and usage policy along with proper training and education. Gray areas should be eliminated as much as possible and the policy should be reviewed annually since things keep changing so fast. If you don’t put a framework in place, your employees and customers will do it for you and you might not like the results. Common sense, right?

If you need help developing a social media strategy and/or policy, let me know.

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