Friday, 14 October 2011

Teacher in Hull suspended for facebook comments: Have you got a Social Media Policy for staff?

News this week that in our home town of Hull, a teacher has been suspended following her comments in a conversation with other teachers on facebook. The teacher in question is now under investigation after making negative remarks about people in the city. Hull City Council are expected to review their policy regarding Social Networking in light of the incident.

This really does highlight the need for strong guidance with an organisation's stakeholders as to their conduct on Social Media. The platform is a whole new ball game and perhaps many don't realise that need, but the head in the sand approach is increasingly likely to cause problems as Social Media becomes ever more ubiquitous.

For a school, where there's a complicated and fairly unique stakeholder structure, including teachers, parents and pupils, it's a difficult issue, but one that certainly needs addressing. Last year we delivered Social Media training to a number of independent schools on behalf of the Association of Marketing and Development in Independent Schools (AMDIS) and their need for a well-defined and dedicated Social Media Policy became strongly apparent as we spoke to more and more schools.

That need isn't exclusive to schools and extends across all three sectors, basically encompassing anyone with a reputation to protect.

Everyone's heard the story of the employee criticising her boss on facebook, forgetting he was her 'friend' on the network and receiving a comment from him instructing her to collect her P45 on Monday.

The problem is that it's not always that simple and clear cut.

Social Media is already vast, yet still growing. It strives to replicate our social life within an online environment. That means there's a constantly increasing array of ways to communicate, with intricate and numerous subtleties of functionality, often tailored specifically to each individual user.

Employees and wider stakeholders may be using any of these methods to discuss your company and subjects directly related to it at any time. A Google alert for you company name or other branded terms will help monitor those conversations when the terms are actually included, but if not, who's to know?

Hopefully, there's already a culture of personal responsibility for a company's image with it's staff in the real world. Hopefully, staff don't denigrate the business when speaking with friends, hopefully, never refer to their boss in negative terms and hopefully, never moan about work... but that's a lot of hope.

If in all likelihood, no matter how good your business, that isn't always the case, their real world network of friends are still a relatively small audience and the comments disappear as the conversations end.

That's not the case in Social Media. Far, far from it.

Everything is recorded in Social Media and has the potential to reach millions of people. The potential danger and damage to a brand is truly massive, as has been well reported with many viral videos and the like. A comment by a stakeholder may not go that far, but it has the potential to and however far it goes, it can still have significant impact.

Even someone making the usual and apparently innocuous comment that they've had a tough day at work could become disastrous. Should the commentor's friends ask why, there's a whole host of answers that could reflect badly on the company.

Perhaps there's been a difficult customer, but do you want a customer criticised publicly? Maybe it was a colleague that made the day tough and if that comes out, it shows disharmony in the ranks and airing the grievance publicly could amplify that. Even if it's just been a boring day, do you want your company described as such?

Whether the comments are of the ilk above or otherwise, the culprit may not even realise the potential damage they're doing. Complexities of privacy and security in the functionality of facebook et al, mean it's difficult for even experts to know exactly who can see what they post.

Should they be punished, especially if there's never been any mention of Social Media by their employers?

Employees and any other stakeholder need clear guidance on their behaviour and the sooner the better.

Within our Social Media Marketing products we include a Social Media Policy as standard because we believe it's now an essential part of any organisataion. Our policy covers all the bases and ensures stakeholders know precisely what they can and should do in Social Media.

If you haven't got a Social Media Policy, get one, before it's too late. If a negative comment goes viral, you could seriously regret not doing so.

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