In this four-part series, we'll shed light on the world of IT training, social media consultants and whether your company needs a formal policy
FrogBox is a small business that's on the brink of getting big. The Vancouver firm, which rents out eco-friendly reusable moving boxes, is on the cusp of launching an ambitious franchising plan across the country. What's more, the company about to get a jolt of publicity with an appearance this week on CBC Television's Dragon's Den.
Soon, its brand - which was once easily managed in their head office - will be in the hands of several franchise owners across Canada. And, this being 2011, many of them will want to take to Facebook, Twitter and the open Web.
This gave CEO Doug Burgoyne - eager to make sure that none of his brand's environmental claims are inaccurate - reason to pause.
"Greenwashing is such a touchy subject right now," he says. For instance, after moving away from solar-powered Web hosting (the benefits, he says, were marginal), Mr. Burgoyne scoured the Web to remove all mention of it. But a well-meaning franchisee might find an old page referring to it, and make an untrue boast.
"We need to absolutely make 100 per cent sure," says Mr. Burgoyne.
It was this kind of concern that led him to hire a consultant to work with his company on a social media policy - one of the more talked-about managerial tools in the social media world. Social media policies are increasingly prevalent and relevant - but does every small business need one?
What's in a social media policy?
At its core, it's a written document that lays out a company's expectations for its employees as they take to social networks.
A good deal of the talk stems from the disaster scenarios that bubble up in the news from time to time: A videotaped prank at a Domino's Pizza kitchen that became an unwelcome YouTube hit, or the summary dismissals of corporate employees who posted the wrong thing on Facebook.
But more often than not, social media policies guard against slips that are entirely well-intentioned. Kirstin Beardsley, the manager of marketing and communication at CanadaHelps, a website that helps connect charities with donors, cites the example of a charity worker posting a photo on Twitter, depicting a holiday lunch spread. If the photo isn't captioned to indicate that the lunch was, in fact, donated, it could lead to readers wondering how the charity was spending its money.
Every policy is different, but most touch on a few critical areas:
• Being an ambassador: As long as they're employees, they're acting as ambassadors for the firm online. As such, their public postings need to be in line with the company's values. Everything they post online needs to be considered; if they find themselves hesitating before clicking "Post" or "Send," then they should probably reconsider.
• Proprietary information: It's easy to give away company information without realizing it. For instance, just checking in on FourSquare or Facebook from a client's location could compromise company plans. Employers and employees need to be crystal-clear on what's proprietary information and what's not.
• Private information: Client confidentiality needs to be preserved at all times. Jo-Anne Stayner, whose Vancouver firm, Fresh PR, is working with FrogBox on their policy, posits the scenario of a well-meaning employee thanking a customer on Twitter. That well-meaning act involuntarily puts confidential sales information into the public domain. The customer might not have wanted to be outed, and they might now find themselves spammed by other companies.
• Transparency: Employees need to be clear on how they can represent the company in the online world. Are staffers allowed to make representations or promises on behalf of the owner? Whose job is it to answer which queries?
Formal policy or common sense?
Social media policies are a big deal with big business, who have thousands of employees and need formalized HR procedures to manage them. But is it overkill for a small business?
Ms. Stayner, whose firm, Fresh PR, is working with FrogBox to craft their policy, says that news coverage of social media issues is drumming up a lot of interest from clients in creating formal policies. Still, she says, that for many small businesses, it's not necessary.
"The people who don't need it is where it's literally five people, they work in the same room, there's one person who does 90 per cent of their social media."
For Ms. Stayner, the need for a formal policy arises when a business is accountable to more than its founders and its customers. For instance, once investors appear on the scene, a businesses' public image reflects on them as well. Similarly, a non-profit or charity will want to make sure it doesn't misrepresent itself in front of its donors.
In the instance of FrogBox, their particular circumstances - a franchise that's charting some politically-charged waters - led them to a policy that's tailored to their needs. It emphasizes, among other things, the need to clear certain materials, like blog posts, with head office before posting them. It also requires franchisees who want to use blogs or set up Facebook pages to agree to a minimum number of posts. Ms. Stayner says it takes about a month of work and meetings to develop a policy that fully suits a firm's needs.
However, if you're looking to do it yourself approach, it's not hard to find policy templates online.
"I always suggest DIY," says Ms. Beardsley. "There are really good social media policies freely available online. Once you start reading, you can see that they have very few differences at heart."
A host of large corporations have, in the spirit of transparency, posted theirs online. You can find the list at http://socialmediagovernance.com/policies.php.
"Focus on do's rather than don'ts, and keep it short and practical," says Ms. Beardsley. "I don't think a policy should be longer than a couple of pages; people won't read it."
If the social media users in your organization buy in, she says, establishing a simple, effective policy isn't hard. A bit of employee communication up front can save a lot of crisis communication down the road.
Special to The Globe and Mail