Authored By Jen McClure, Senior Director, Social Media Strategy, and Marc Gold, SVP, Associate General Counsel, Corporate & Securities, Thomson Reuters
While there are certainly some potential risks that should be considered regarding social media for business, there is also a strong argument to be made that social media provides the most powerful, effective and efficient toolset available today to reinvent brands, strengthen relationships with employees, customers, partners and prospects, and leverage a competitive advantage.
This article will address the perceived and real risks of social media, dispel some myths, and offer practical tips for social media program management. It will discuss the importance of proper planning, management and governance, guidelines and policies, training and education, listening and engaging, and management support – and how corporate counsel can be an important partner to achieve success.
1. Assess and plan.
Before expanding into new types of social media, organizations should assess their readiness through internal stakeholder reviews, executive interviews, employee surveys and/or focus groups. Some of the key goals of this assessment should be to identify what the company believes it can gain by using a particular form of social media, what types of social media might be most effective for the company and which employees would be best to support the social media initiative from a day-to-day perspective and for oversight/management.
2. Get senior management support.
Once the internal assessment is complete and a decision has been made to recommend a particular type of social media, the cross-functional working group – which should include legal – typically needs to get appropriate senior management buy-in. These discussions often cover the benefits to the organization from the proposed social media initiative and might also make a business case for budgeting or funding.
In-house counsel’s presence typically is welcome in internal emails, calls and meetings to discuss implications, possible scenarios and management’s role in supporting social media in the organization. In-house counsel often has an opportunity to help cover or respond to “what if” questions – especially those that discuss hypotheticals involving negative comments or rumors about the company, its products or people who work at the organization - and what the company might do in those situations.
3. Choose a governance structure that works for the organization.
There are three primary models for social media management and governance:
- The “distributed” model is characterized by a high level of experimentation and doesn’t rely on coordinated or centralized management of social media activities.
- In the “centralized” model, one department controls all social media efforts.
- Finally, the “coordinated” or “hub and spoke” model provides centralized resources that can support business units. The business units still have freedom and flexibility, and ideally work in alignment with what other spokes are doing.
At Thomson Reuters, we adopted the “hub and spoke” model. Our Social Media Task Force serves as our hub. The goal of the task force is to ensure a coordinated, well-managed approach to social media that takes into account strategic business objectives, branding and communications considerations, resource requirements, and success metrics. The task force is charged with developing and maintaining guidelines and best practices, evaluating vendors and tools, and providing a framework for measuring the success of social media efforts. The task force is a global, corporate-wide, cross-functional initiative that includes representation and participation from all parts of the organization, including legal.
4. Understand the rules and regulations.
Generally speaking, social media is a type of communication. Most laws, rules and regulations don’t specifically address social media. However, this has been changing over the last few years and social media is increasingly being recognized or acknowledged.
This is an area where legal counsel can really shine and add great value to the successful implementation of social media policies and programs. For example:
- An FTC notice provides guidance related to endorsements and testimonials that are communicated using social media.
- Public companies need to ensure that using social media harmonizes and doesn’t conflict with general communications principles such as those related to disclosing material nonpublic information (i.e., “Reg FD”) and any “quiet periods” around the time of earnings announcements.
- Companies in regulated industries (such as financial institutions, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies) are often very careful to ensure that any social media use complies with broader disclosure rules and regulations related to customer communications, records retention and data privacy.
A number of legal considerations related to social media are employment-related. For example, in the U.S., employers should not prevent their employees from using social media to discuss topics such as wages, hours and working conditions (or discipline them for posts on Facebook, Twitter or other sites that the company may view as negative or critical). However, many companies have codes of conduct or policies that allow them to discipline employees if their personal use of social media at work is excessive or otherwise interferes with job responsibilities during company time.
Social media posts, comments and discussions can also be discoverable in the event of litigation or legal proceedings. In-house counsel should think about social media use when assessing the company’s overall policy or approach for “legal holds.”
Corporate counsel can add great value by understanding and communicating these regulations and helping to inform and educate social media practitioners and employees through social media guidelines, policies, training and education.
5. Develop guidelines and policies.
A comprehensive and clearly communicated social media policy is one of the most important foundational elements necessary for social media success. This is also an area where corporate counsel can be invaluable.
A good process for creating a social media policy should begin with the creation of a working group that reviews the company’s current communications policies, as well as other organizations’ publicly available policies. Many companies have adopted separate social media policies or guidelines over the last few years to supplement general communications policies. We believe that policies that are concise, written in plain English, flexible and practical have the greatest chance of being read, understood, and complied with by employees across an organization. Often, it’s helpful to distribute a near-final version of the policy to different employees (outside the working group) to get feedback prior to adoption. In addition, if a company’s employees are represented by a union or works council, in-house counsel might be asked to advise on coordination and communication with the group.
Social media policies or guidelines should be posted in an easy-to-find place within a company’s intranet, and also possibly on an external website. A wide range of examples of corporate social media policies is available at SocialMediaGovernance.com.
Developing a social media policy should take into consideration your organization’s corporate culture, special industry-specific regulations, etc. What works for one company often doesn’t fit for another. Corporate counsel can be a great partner and contributor in this work – especially in the drafting/review process.
6. Provide training and education.
Providing training and education is another key element to success. Training programs that focus on real world examples can effectively show branding-related impacts. Since many employees use social media for personal and business use, it’s important to educate about the relevant do’s and don’ts. At Thomson Reuters, we address social media in our Code of Business Conduct & Ethics (which is acknowledged by all employees), and we’ve developed online training based on our Social Media Guidelines that’s available to all employees. We also offer customized training to those in various business functions, (e.g., marketing, communications, customer service, sales), hold regular webinars, and host an annual social media summit for employees.
In-house counsel can provide value to these processes by assisting in the review of training materials and programs. In-house counsel can also provide valuable training and guidance to the company’s human resources professionals, as they’re often are the first persons contacted in the organization when an employee is alleged to have violated the company’s social media policy or guidelines.
7. Listen, engage and respond appropriately.
One of the biggest benefits of social media is the ability to gain new insights based on the myriad conversations taking place about your company’s industry, business and brand. There are a wide variety of social monitoring solutions available, ranging from free online tools to enterprise-class software. Often, an organization’s communications department will have the greatest understanding of the various options and will be the primary users of these tools to stay on top of the conversations taking place internally and externally around your organization and brand.
Because of the speed of social media, it’s important for in-house counsel to know and develop close connections with the various people at the company who monitor both internal and external social media communications. If there’s ever an issue or a problem, often the legal department will need to be contacted quickly.
8. Embrace not only your ambassadors, but your detractors as well.
“What if someone says something bad about us?” That’s a common concern for organizations considering getting involved with social media. Here’s the truth. Some people already are, and always have been saying something negative about your company or brand. For as long as there have been businesses, there have been advocates and detractors, water cooler conversations and rumor mills. Many organizations think the biggest risk of social media is that people will use it to say negative or critical things about them. But actually, that can sometimes be a benefit. The advantage social media provides is that now we can hear those conversations and comments and respond appropriately.
In-house counsel often is called upon to provide guidance as to whether a company should respond or not to a particular social media-related post or rumor. These determinations are often based on unique facts and circumstances. In some instances, a company may choose to respond, but in many other instances, a company may opt to not engage.
9. Trust your employees and be open to new ideas, experimentation and change.
Many companies historically placed heavy restrictions on their employees’ ability to communicate externally. Social media has changed this way of thinking in many organizations (subject, of course, to employees complying with social media policies or guidelines).
Trust is crucial for successful social media initiatives. Companies are increasingly allowing more and more social media use by their employees, and relying on their employees to use good judgment and common sense and to know when to speak with others in the organization (such as in-house lawyers) when they have questions as to whether to post or discuss something related to the company.
10. The biggest risk of all: NOT engaging in social media.
The future of business is social. Companies with a view toward long-term success will understand that social media offers a new and important way to gain insights, improve innovations, monitor and improve brand reputation, and strengthen relationships with employees, customers, partners and prospects. Increasingly, social tools and technologies are redefining the way business is done.
In-house counsel can play an important role in their organizations’ social media success by understanding the rewards and risks, providing insight and guidance, and partnering with those developing and managing social media programs and strategies.