Social Media: What’s Your Policy?

An interesting article appeared earlier this month on Charity Village about a real life story of some of the errors that can be made when using twitter and other social media accounts. Mistakes will happen, that is human nature, but how we react to our human frailties can be as revealing as the mistakes themselves.

If you’re an avid devotee of social media, chances are you’ve already heard about this infamous gaffe: a Red Cross employee uses HootSuite to send out an otherwise-innocent tweet about her alcohol-induced evening in the company of a specific beer. She thought she was sending it from her personal account. But she was wrong. As we all know, mistakes like that are not easily repealed and once you’ve hit that send button it’s hard to take things back.

But here’s the thing about the Red Cross and their reaction to the incident: no one got fired, nothing hit the proverbial fan and no one went into heavy crisis mode.

In fact, they made light of the situation with an affable response.

“We’ve deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we’ve confiscated the keys,” said the follow-up tweet. In a statement about the incident, Social Media Director Wendy Harman summed up their response this way: “We are an organization that deals with life-changing disasters and this wasn’t one of them; it was just a little mistake.”

Taking full advantage of the situation, the beer company referred to in the original tweet, Dogfish, promptly sent out their own tweets requesting followers to donate to the Red Cross. Before long, a number of pubs joined in, offering pints of the beer to anyone who donated blood. Ironically, what could have been a disastrous situation ended up win-win. Well, almost.


In Control?

That’s not always the case. Sofia Ribeiro of Kiwano Marketing relates another story: in early March, an employee of Chrysler’s social media agency accidentally sent out a message from the Chrysler handle and used the “F” word in one of his tweets. It didn’t take long for Chrysler’s management team (and its 9,000+ followers) to see it and react. The employee was unceremoniously dismissed and Chrysler also dispensed with the agency. Though they deleted the tweet from the company’s twitter thread, the damage was already done, explains Ribeiro, adding, “What’s interesting is that many of Chrysler’s followers were shocked to learn that the agency managing Chrysler’s twitter account dismissed the contractor over this, further damaging the brand.” No win here.

The Red Cross and Chrysler stories offer some important lessons. First, it reminds us of how vulnerable we are in the social media landscape. We are truly never alone out there and best not to forget it. Second, one’s reaction to a non-critical situation can be as defining as one’s response in a crisis scenario. Knowing the difference between the two, and finding humour and flexibility in the former, can have profound impact. Third, the stories underlie the importance of having a social media policy in place, a document that can help guide employees in their behaviour and upper management in their damage control. Ribeiro explains that such a policy would:

Outline what kind of social media account management tools the organization should use, and whether or not users can link it to their personal account.
Include a crisis communication plan developed especially for social media, one that takes into consideration social media’s fast-paced nature and ability to immediately react to the organization’s actions.

Knowing how to react to both potential and real crises in the online world is critical to maintaining your reputation and control over your mission. Avoiding a crisis in the first place is equally essential. A policy can offer direction on both.

Forward-thinking
Some organizations saw the writing on the wall early-on and set policies in place to avert any real harm.

Take Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). It all started when aid workers in the field started blogging, which seemed not only harmless, but a fantastic way to keep in touch and provide stories from the frontlines. The problem was, they did so without asking permission or support from the MSF communications department and their actions actually inadvertently posed security risks. As communications director Avril Benoit explains, some workers in highly sensitive and insecure contexts like Darfur were writing whatever was on their mind, which, given MSF operates as a neutral humanitarian organization, had the “potential to jeopardize our presence in their locations.” What’s more, if someone was feeling particularly stressed or frustrated, they might possibly say things they would later regret.

It seemed obvious that, if communication under normal circumstances required forethought and guidelines about what could and could not be said, implementing a social media policy was a no-brainer. MSF decided to provide employees with a structured safety net with clear guidelines and a policy that ensured someone checked content before it got posted. It wasn’t about editing or cleaning up the posts or even giving it the “PR polish that the blogosphere rejects,” says Benoit. “It was just to ensure nothing was said that would jeopardize the confidentiality of patients and the operational space that is essential for us to stay in these places.”

The eight-page policy, a coordinated effort by an international working group that Benoit co-chaired, was put together and approved in October of last year. A straightforward document, it outlines best practices (e.g. postings should always include a disclaimer that the views expressed are of the writer and do not represent the position or values of MSF); rules and obligations (e.g.”Stay neutral and impartial”, “Respect privacy and dignity”); and provides specific blogging guidelines. Employees are also reminded that personal, political or religious views are not to be discussed and taking sides in conflict situations is an absolute no-no.

“There are certain principles of the organization that allows us to work in these sensitive situations that we must respect,” Benoit says.

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