Open slather or Big Brother? Managing the social media tsunami in your organisation

Published on
March 17, 2014

So… how’s that social media thing working out for your company?

The digital rollercoaster is moving at high speed, and shows no signs of running out of puff anytime soon, no matter how hard traditionalists may wish. The pace of change and the sheer variety of channels mean that many organisations are always playing catch-up — if indeed they’ve started to play in a meaningful way at all — and may have only a tentative grip on the real risks and opportunities social media presents.

It also means that your employees, often rapid adaptors in their private lives, may not be fully engaged with or understand the expectations of how online behaviour translates to the office environment and your culture.

It’s the randomness that can be extremely challenging to mitigate, to plan for, and certainly to recover from if things go awry, which points to having a good governance framework in place to try to corral it all. However, finding the balance that combines the appropriate level of control while embracing the opportunities for ‘real’ conversations that digital offers is the trick.

This is not a new discussion, and the web abounds with advice on ‘how to’ for social media policy. What is new though is an emerging list of Australian case studies that spotlight the legal minefields encircling digital channels and the practical application of ‘policy’ and control in cyberspace.

The recent history-making Twitter defamation case in New South Wales highlights the potential for workplace issues to take on a life outside the office through social media, and to have a devastating impact on individuals. In this situation, a social media policy would not necessarily have prevented the original defamatory tweets as the tweeter was not an employee but an employee’s family member. However it serves to reinforce the old adage that ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ — surely a good foundation for any social media policy. The Sydney Morning Herald’s report has more detail.

Then there’s the Linfox employee who was dismissed for several breaches of workplace policy, including refusal to sign a ‘read and understood’ acknowledgement of the social media policy. His argument for unfair dismissal was that he’s not paid outside of working hours, so his employer can’t tell him what to do or say outside of work. The Fair Work Commission’s response in support of social media policy was ‘resounding’, and raises a number of interesting points about protecting the reputation and security of the employer, according to Michael Byrnes from Clayton Utz. Read his analysis on their blog.

For communicators, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the complexity. What is clear though is that building a robust social media policy that ticks the legal boxes and also fits with your culture and internal communication philosophy must be a priority. If you’ve got one in place, it’s going to need a regular review and polish-up to make sure it’s keeping up with the ever-expanding social media universe.

From Rowland’s perspective, we’ve gathered a few pearls of wisdom as we’ve helped our clients navigate social media governance and strategy. Here are our ‘Top 3’:

  1. Align policy and culture: The foundation of any policy must be where you stand on social media as a corporate tool — are you reactive, proactive, or just a passive bystander with a presence but not much personality? What role does it play in your brand, your reputation, both externally and as an employer? Who owns what in terms of material written on company-owned devices? What sort of ‘behaviour’ is acceptable and what’s not? Be clear, get legal checks, and make sure the way your company operates is catered for — for example, if you have employees working remotely or ‘from home’ on a regular basis, what does it mean for them?
  2. Bring your people along for the ride: While your policy document itself may need to be formal and go through the legal ‘HR treatment’, embedding it in the day-to-day consciousness of staff needs a more concerted effort than just publishing it on the intranet. Launching it in a style that fits your culture and gives it some air-time is a good start, which means committing some resources to bringing it to life in an engaging way. An annual incentivised compliance refresher is also a great tactic. This is a highly recommended, best-practice approach to proactive risk prevention.
  3. Monitor and ‘enforce’: Clarity about the consequences of non-compliance is important. A decision needs to be made from the outset about monitoring — to what extent will you be keeping an eye on employee activity, and taking action in the event of misdemeanours? Trust is a great starting point, but a policy is only a policy if it’s actually lived by. Make sure you know how far you’re prepared to hold people to the promise, and that your leaders are on board with the part they have to play.

Social and digital media is an increasingly complex and challenging area. Investing some time and effort to get policy foundations right will help your organisation to stay ahead of the game — and your employees to understand the expectations of them as brand ambassadors in a wireless world.

To discuss development of a social media policy for your organisation, please contact Janet Houen, Principal Client Director Organisational and Change Communication on (07) 3229 4499 or