While I was at school, I remember two pupils being hauled in front of the headmaster for smoking in their uniform. The fact they were over the then legal age, outside of school grounds and after school hours made no difference, they were sentenced to a few long Friday afternoons in detention.
The same principle seems to be being applied to company employees using social networks. Their usernames are now their uniform, their personal life an extension of a brand. Social media guidelines have recently featured regularly in the press, and organisations are increasingly coming under fire if apparently ‘draconian’ measures come to light.
As social networks are a largely public domain, media-savvy organisations live in almost perpetual fear of attracting a ‘Twitter storm’ or even the dreaded ‘social media meme’. The stakes are clearly higher than a simple schoolboy slap on the wrist. However, are the various attempts to control employees online and uphold organisations’ reputations really the way forward? Indeed, if their social media policies are being published and derided, it would seem that various companies have fallen at the first reputational hurdle.
Of course, there are the horror stories; the employee fired after badmouthing her boss on Facebook, Tom Watson’s free-tweeting intern, the Linkedin sacking… the list goes on, and these examples are often cited as proof that social media policies are necessary.
If followers are accrued through a professional social media account, then a business should be involved with messages being conveyed by an employee, but this should not extend to eradicating all form of personality from this space. Social networks can be a cynical place, and prescribed, one-way corporate messaging often runs the risk of falling very flat. Any organisation is only as good as its people, and if they are reduced to mere conduits for corporate rhetoric, they are unlikely to attract valuable online engagement.
A corporate entity can preserve and enhance its reputation online by encouraging, rather than enforcing employee engagement. It’s a fine line, but Intel’s social media guidelines seem to strike up a pretty good balance – the section on transparency seems particularly attuned to the medium.
Despite the variety of guidelines proposed within organisations, the distinction between professional and private does remain difficult to navigate. Perhaps a company’s reputation would not suffer from a dash of personality being added to professional Tweets, in much the same way that an individual’s reputation could be enhanced if they think before they Tweet – even if in a private capacity. Either way, moderation seems to be key, if only to avoid a confrontation with a latter-life headmaster.