As Twitter’s popularity grows, it has forced many organizations to set guidelines for what types of information their employees can share on the service. But in trying to construct a policy, many companies grapple with how to balance the transparency social networking tools enable with the need to safeguard company information.
Twitter, like most social networks, blurs the line between workers’ personal and professional lives. On one hand, a Twitter account could reflect someone’s life with family and friends. On the other hand, it could communicate experiences at work — or, more likely, it conveys a bit of both.
Some people try to manage multiple accounts, but few have the time. Plus, if people change companies, multiple accounts are bad for continuity and maintaining followers.
Consequently, employees in this middleground on Twitter are uneasy. They want to be genuine and uninhabited in their tweets, but they don’t want to post something that will harm their company or, worse, get themselves fired.
While some people say the information they decide to share should be a matter of commonsense — Twitter, after all, isn’t the first communications technology to come along — employees need guidance. For its part, Twitter is different than past technologies.
“Some people make the argument: If companies aren’t screening phone conversations, why would they worry about Twitter so much?” says Caroline Dangson (@carolinedangson), a social media analyst at IDC. “But Twitter is so open. What you say can spread virally. It’s searchable and stays online. It’s different than live conversation on the phone.”
After contacting analysts and examining the Twitter use policies that some companies have created, we found some common guidelines that can help. As you’ll learn, in the spirit of social media, they should be constructed with input from the bottom-up. You should also expect some hiccups along the way.
1. Update Your Surely Outdated Code of Business Conduct
Your business code of conduct for employees — whether on your company intranet or deteriorating inside a filing cabinet — should be reviewed before setting a Twitter policy. The Twitter policy will become an addendum to it, and eventually, it should be woven into it entirely. In many cases, companies find that the rules in place for information sharing will be severely outdated due to the nature of the Twitter medium, says Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang), a senior Forrester analyst who writes a blog on Web Strategy.
“Social media moves much faster than a set of corporate rules,” he says. “In many cases, you’ll need to update them, and it’s important to encourage your company to do it right away to help prevent mistakes [by employees on Twitter].”
The code of conduct can help cover the basics around disclosure, which includes what information should never be shared with anyone, whether the mouthpiece for doing so is phone, e-mail, Twitter or any other form of communications, says IDC’s Dangson. This includes the obvious examples, like certain financial data, copyrights and other forms of proprietary information that aren’t public. Employees also shouldn’t tweet information the company shares with a partner or customer without gaining their permission to do so, Dangson adds.
When the time comes to announce that you have worked up a policy for Twitter, you will want to conveniently link to this overall code of conduct for context. You also should add Twitter to the list of ways in which it’s possible to expose information.
You should then identify who has a Twitter account within your company. Owyang recently described a variety of Twitter profile types on his blog.
In general, there are two main types of accounts as it concerns a business — company-sponsored Twitter accounts and individual Twitter accounts operated by the people who work there. The former most likely reside in your marketing, customer service or communications departments.
These company Twitter handles generally focus on helping customers and reaching out to the public. Some companies, such as Dell, have a page on their website displaying their company accounts. Company accounts can be operated by one person, or a team. Frank Eliason, a customer service manager at Comcast, runs the @comcastcares account on Twitter, for instance.
But it’s employees’ personal accounts, which they own and manage, that will be harder to identify. For privacy reasons, some people might not want to tell their employer they have a Twitter account at all. According to analysts, that’s fine — provided they don’t say anywhere in the profile or in their tweets that they work for you (or drop the suggestion of it).
But as soon as they identify themselves as being a part of your company, then they need to be aware that, conscious or not, they in some way represent the business. The things they say about their company will become part of the public discourse, and they will have to follow guidelines.
3. Encourage a Disclaimer
One answer to this representing-the-company dilemma: For any employee who isn’t an executive, or designated spokesperson for the company, a Twitter policy should encourage that he puts a disclaimer on his profile. Something simple can go a long way: “I’m a writer for CIO.com, but the opinions tweeted here don’t reflect those of my employer.”
“It allows people to speak freely, while at the same time feeling like they are protecting their company,” Owyang says.
4. Work Together on Guidelines
Since social media tends to be a bottom-up phenomenon, it doesn’t make sense to construct guidelines that don’t solicit employee input, says Dangson. On the employer side, there must be the realization that companies will be sharing more information with the public as a result of these tools. On the employee side, people must recognize that some information will always remain off-limits for sharing, and that in many ways, they are speaking for the company on a variety of matters.
As you might guess, technology companies have led the way in crafting social media policies. IBM was one of the earliest companies to adopt a set of guidelines around social media. Big Blue used a wiki to compile input from their employees to construct its policy. IBM’s social media guidelines, posted online, have a few elements that might help companies looking to craft their own Twitter policies:
- 1. Respect copyright and financial disclosure as laid out in the code of conduct.
- 2. Speak in the first person to help identify that you speak for yourself, and not the company.
- 3. Respect your audience by writing in thoughtful language (avoiding insults, slurs or obscenity).
- 4. Don’t pick fights, and be the first to admit and correct a mistake.
Intel also has some interesting thoughts in its social media policy. Some of these include:
- 1. Write what you know by sticking to your expertise.
- 2. You’re responsible for everything you write.
- 3. If it gives you pause, pause. (Especially important on an instant publishing medium like Twitter)
Your company’s Twitter policy will vary depending on your industry, taking into account, for instance, how secretive your corporate culture is and the regulations you must follow. Companies should work with their employees to figure out what’s fair and, more importantly, realistic. When employees make Twitter mistakes (and they will), employers should try to handle the matter constructively by talking about what a more appropriate tweet would have been, and why it bent the policy in place.
While it’s well and good to say employees are “responsible” for everything they tweet, your people should feel that the company stands behind them when they contribute intelligent and thoughtful material.
C.G. Lynch covers consumer web and social technologies for CIO.com. He writes frequently on Twitter, Facebook and Google. You can follow him on Twitter: @cglynch.