Do you need a corporate social media policy?

One of the topics that comes up most often in discussion about social media within corporations is the topic of social media policy. What should your social media policy be? What should be in it? How should you regulate it? These problems and questions have been on the minds of corporate executives since the dawn of social media.

I’d like to raise a separate question entirely: do you even need a social media policy? Consider this bit of information, courtesy of Edison Research’s Infinite Dial study:


The odds of any given employee having a social media account are 2 out of 3, from the mailroom clerk to the CEO. Think about that for a moment. More importantly, with smartphone penetration reaching 61% of the population, chances are employees are reaching social networks on their own data plans and networks. This means that social network usage, which traditionally could be monitored or blocked at the IT infrastructure level, increasingly eludes corporate control.

Now think about all of the things companies have traditionally lumped into social media policies:

  • Disclosure of gifts
  • Disclosure of employment
  • Non-harassment of other employees
  • Guidance or regulation of defamatory comments
  • Non-disclosure of proprietary information
  • Corporate monitoring of communications
  • Generally not acting badly or causing PR problems

Here’s why I raise the question of needing a corporate social media policy. On the one hand, the ability for employees to access social networks via smartphones and mobile devices without using corporate infrastructure, combined with incredibly high usage of both social networks and smartphones, means that social media is effectively both ubiquitous and beyond regulation.

On the other hand, the things companies have spent hours and hours of legal counsel time and energy defining in traditional social media policies are behaviors that are already largely governed in standard employment and HR policy. Employees can’t and shouldn’t make derogatory remarks about the company in public, whether it’s on Facebook or at a bar. Employees can’t and shouldn’t disclose sensitive corporate information in any context. Employees should avoid causing public relations disasters in general.

An employee can cause plenty of damage to a corporation’s brand even without touching their own social networks. Ask any CEO who has had an employee recorded on video behaving badly just how much heartburn a bad employee can cause without ever posting something defamatory online.

The reality is that most corporate social media policies are largely redundant, covered by existing rules and regulations about how to behave with good judgement. Instead of formulating a lengthy social media policy, think about weaving social media examples into your existing policies. It will save you time, energy, and expenses as well as ensuring that you’re asking for your employees’ best behavior in all contexts, not just social media.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer; before making any changes to your existing policies, be sure to consult with your own HR and legal counsel.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

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Posted on March 19, 2014 in Legal, Public Relations, Social Media

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About the Author

Christopher S. Penn has been featured as a recognized authority in many books, publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, New York Times, BusinessWeek and US News & World Report, and television networks such as PBS, CNN, CNBC, Fox News, and ABC News for his leadership in new media and marketing. In 2012 and again in 2013, Forbes Magazine recognized him as one of the top 50 most influential people in social media and digital marketing; Marketo Corporation named him a Marketing Illuminator, and PR News nominated him as Social Media Person of the Year. Mr. Penn is the Vice President of Marketing Technology at SHIFT Communications, a public relations firm, as well as co-founder of the groundbreaking PodCamp New Media Community Conference, and co-host of the Marketing Over Coffee marketing podcast. He is an adjunct professor of Internet marketing and the lead subject matter expert and professor of Advanced Social Media at the University of San Francisco. He’s the author of the best-selling book Marketing White Belt: Basics for the Digital Marketer.

In June 2012 and again in December of 2013 I wrote about this topic and shared my personal feelings about it. A professional communicator from where I worked took me to task on my thoughts but couldn't get beyond the words, "We need a policy for social media." He couldn't explain why or offer any information to show what would be in a social media policy that wasn't already covered in another policy, procedure or directive.

I will be sending him this. Thanks so much! BTW, I found this through @Scott Monty. Welcome back This Week in Digital! 

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