How to Devise a Stellar Social Media Policy: NASA's Tips

Social media policies make sense to protect employees and businesses in the age of Facebook and Twitter. For expert perspective on how to create a social media policy, consider this advice from the team that wrote NASA's rules.

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NASA has been exploring social media—a territory still foreign to many businesses—for years now. But back in 2007, as more and more employees began using external social media sites, NASA determined that it was time develop a policy—not just to protect the agency, but to protect their employees as well.

"Social media policies are critical for businesses. Employees need to have some sense of guidance if they're exploring the social media area," says Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We had a lot of employees out there operating on the edge in social media where they weren't doing anything wrong [in using technologies like Facebook and Twitter], but we wanted to give them some guidelines so they were protected, and so others who were afraid to use social media would be encouraged to use it," she says. (Holms is no stranger to high-profile challenges: CIO.com profiled her role managing all the content related to NASA's 2008 Mars mission in this article.)

NASA successfully developed and implemented a set of social media guidelines and added them onto the existing communications policy. Check out Holm's tips and tricks to help make your social media policy rollout go smoothly.

Before Devising a Policy:

Ask WHY you want to use social media. Figuring out the business goals for social media is one of the most important steps, says Holm. "It could be that it's a simple way to communicate with customers or get feedback on ideas," she says. "But if you don't know why you're getting into social media, you won't be successful in it."

Determine if you have the ability to sustain social media over time. "You need to be a constant presence on Facebook or Twitter or any other type of social media you're looking to get into," Holm says. If you don't have the resources to update a Twitter feed or Facebook page with new content on a regular basis, you may want to postpone your efforts, she advises.

Crafting a Policy:

Don't create a new policy, extend your current one to encompass social media. NASA has an overarching policy for media, where the same rules apply for social media and "water cooler" talk, Holm says. "Social media is just another type of media—it's really no different from talking at a conference or e-mailing," she says. "You're just using a different platform."

Make your policy broad. "You don't want to create a policy specific to any one technology—five years ago it was Facebook, then it was Twitter. You don't know which technology will be next," she says.

Ask for input from a varied group of individuals. Rather than just publishing and disseminating the updated policy to employees, NASA held a town-hall-style meeting to introduce changes to the policy and gauge how their employees felt about it, she says. "We asked them what they thought about the policy and if it made sense to them," Holm says.

"We didn't want the policy to be too harsh for those who were already using social media freely, but we wanted to make sure it wasn't too scant for those who wanted some guidance to feel comfortable using social media." At the end of the meeting, Holm says that rather than feeling hindered or overwhelmed by the policy, employees felt empowered.

After Enacting the Updated Policy:

Reassess later down the line. Holm stresses that these guidelines have to be iterative—create them, then see how the rules work over time. "If you're asking [employees] to operate in a way that doesn't make any sense to them or can't be done—which happens often when those making the guidelines don't use social media themselves—take a step back and revise, so they're livable for everyone," she says.

Staff Writer Kristin Burnham covers consumer Web and social technologies for CIO.com. She writes frequently on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google. You can follow her on Twitter: @kmburnham.

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