From Intel to Coca-Cola, almost every major brand has a social media policy that tells their representatives what they can and can’t do on social media.
In this guide, we’ll answer key questions such as what is the purpose of a social media policy, and what are the key points a social media policy should include. We’ll also analyse examples of social media policies from a selection of brands, to give you a basis to work from when you sit down to write your own company social media policy.
What is a social media policy?
A social media policy is a document that tells a brand’s representatives how they should behave and communicate on social media.
Having an effective social media policy in-place helps prevent the sort of social media mistakes that lead to reputational harm and dissatisfied customers. And more positively, the inclusion of useful best practice examples and guidance in a social media policy can empower representatives to navigate their social media use with confidence.
It’s difficult to know exactly when brand social media policies started to take off. However, Google Trends data indicates that search interest in the topic started flickering into life in the late noughties, around the time Facebook became the world’s most widely used social platform.
Over the years since, searches relating to social media policies have steadily increased. This could suggest that having a social media policy has become more important to brands as social media has grown to become a more prevalent touchpoint in the B2B or B2C relationship.
Brands today tend to use social media for a variety of purposes – not only to list company information or deliver marketing messaging, but also to formally handle customer support issues via comment or private message.
The scope of brand social media use has widened, and this has produced two outcomes that jointly make social media policies a must-have:
- An increase in the number of representatives needed to run a brand’s social media; and
- The emergence of higher professional standards in social media marketing and use.
When you consider that it now takes more team members to represent the average brand on social, and that each representative is now held to higher standards, it’s clear to see why having a social media policy matters to a growing number of businesses.
Areas to cover in a social media policy
Social media processes
When multiple team members are involved in running a brand’s social media account, it’s important to specify standard processes for everyone to follow.
These might include:
- Security practices, including guidance on the safe management of usernames and passwords.
- Customer service workflow, e.g. when we receive a negative comment, we need to raise a ticket in our CRM for the responsible team member.
- Content sourcing practices. For example, are team members permitted to use images sourced from online libraries such as Flickr or Unsplash, provided that the images are offered on a Creative Commons licence?
Outlining processes is one area of social media policy where it pays to provide lots of detail, perhaps even including screenshots and short case studies that show how each process works. This will give team members a definitive resource to refer back to whenever they encounter a situation they don’t know how to deal with. A detailed, accessible specification of your processes will help your representatives to do their jobs effectively, efficiently and consistently.
Any brand that communicates with customers online could benefit from using a consistent tone-of-voice.
The best way to achieve that consistency is through implementing tone-of-voice guidelines, which set out the language choices and writing style team members should use when they communicate on behalf of the brand. This could include anything from certain vocabulary to choose or avoid, to the ideal level of linguistic complexity to suit the target audience.
If everyone sticks to the guidelines, the brand should have a consistent voice across different channels and communications. As a result, the brand identity is reinforced, and so is the perception of professionalism across the organisation.
Tone-of-voice guidelines can cover a lot of ground and run to several pages in length. As such, we suggest including only the most important points on tone-of-voice, along with a link to a full tone-of-voice guidelines document, in your social media policy.
Your brand may already have a set of tone-of-voice guidelines. If not, we suggest you spend some time exploring your brand tone-of-voice, defining it and formalising it in a document. Even just a few bullet points could greatly improve the consistency of your communications. For inspiration, see our tips on nailing the right tone-of-voice for your brand.
Prohibited uses and disciplinary sanctions
When a representative misuses a brand social media account, there could be severe consequences for the brand. There are all manner of real world examples to back this up, from the time one of the team behind Pope Francis’s Instagram account liked a photo of a glamour model, to the unfortunate episode where one of Chrysler’s social media team posted a sweary rebuke to Detroit motorists via the carmaker’s Twitter account.
Although these stories range from the somewhat amusing to the utterly serious, the stakes are always high for the brands or organisations involved. As such, it’s appropriate to outline prohibited social media uses, along with details of applicable disciplinary sanctions, in your social media policy.
Personal use social media policy
Even when a brand’s representative uses social media only in a personal capacity, their conduct could still affect the brand’s reputation and customer experience.
With this in mind, many brands have rules on how their representatives should use their personal social media accounts. These guidelines are often written up as an employee social media policy, which can be presented either as part of the wider social media policy, or as a separate document.
Rules on employee personal social media use typically cover areas such as:
- Bringing the brand into disrepute through offensive, harassing or illegal use.
- Sharing confidential information about the brand, its partners or customers.
- Complaining about co-workers or clients.
- Posting content, or being tagged in content, that suggests disreputable activity.
It’s important to bear in mind that employees do have a right to express themselves on their personal social media accounts. Inevitably, there will be cases where a team member posts content that your brand disagrees with, despite the fact the content complies with your rules.
Teaching your team members good social media practice can mitigate the negative effects of employees posting off-brand personal. A good place to do this is the personal use section of your social media policy document. You might include guidance such as:
- Add a disclaimer to your social profiles, specifying that the opinions shared are your own, and not the brand’s.
- Tidy up your digital footprint by going through your social profiles and deleting any old content that you might not agree with today.
- Use your privacy settings so your content is only visible to the people you’d like to see it.
If you can combine this sort of guidance on good personal social media use with clear rules banning the most harmful behaviours, you’ll have a strong basis for the personal use section of your social media policy.
How to structure a social media policy
Now we have an idea of the areas a social media policy can cover – but how do those areas fit together in a document?
Social media policies vary in format from brand to brand, and there’s no right or wrong approach. To give you an idea of the variety of formats used, let’s take a look at some real-world examples of B2C and B2B social media policies.
B2C social media policy examples
Tech giant Intel has a detailed, information-rich social media policy that still manages to communicate its key points efficiently, thanks in part to the use of formatting features such as bold text and numbered lists.
One point that we particularly liked from this policy is the following:
“When you are posting about Intel or Intel products, include the hashtag #IamIntel. This lets people know that you are affiliated with Intel (disclosure is required by the Federal Trade Commission). Just putting Intel in your biography is not enough!”
This strikes us as a really smart way to create a separation between team members’ personal and professional use of social media.
As might be expected of a brand of such renown, Coca-Cola has implemented social media policy since the early days of social media as we know it.
This “social media principles” document is a little dated by this point, but it’s still valuable insofar as it provides insight into one of the very biggest companies’ thinking on social media.
We’re particularly interested in the following point from the document’s guidance on personal social media use:
“Know that the Internet is permanent. Once information is published online, it is essentially part of a permanent record, even if you “remove/delete” it later or attempt to make it anonymous. If your complete thought, along with its context, cannot be squeezed into a character‐restricted space (such as Twitter), provide a link to an online space where the message can be expressed completely and accurately.”
On a surface level, this point talks about the need for representatives to clarify the assertions they make on social media with links to supporting content. The deeper message, however, seems to be that representatives should complete their line of thinking before they post. It’s a nuanced way of saying: don’t post hastily on social media, because you can’t take back what you’ve said.
B2B social media policy example
Software provider Oracle has opted for brevity and a legalistic tone in its social media policy.
A particularly effective aspect of this policy is its use of sub-headers and longer sections of copy to appeal to two different types of reader: skim-readers and those who are more detail-oriented.
The sub-headers – e.g. “Don’t speak for Oracle”, “Don’t discuss future offerings” – clearly communicate the rules in a few short words, while the paragraphs that follow provide further explanation to readers who want it.
Tips on writing an effective social media policy
Whichever approach you take to formatting your social media policy, there are a few tips and best practices you should always keep in mind.
Tip #1: Explain the most important points concisely
It’s great to have a comprehensive set of rules and guidelines in your social media policy, but do bear in mind that the more rules you set, the harder it will be for team members to comply fully.
To maximise compliance with the rules that matter most, make the non-negotiable aspects of your policy – e.g. dos and don’ts – as concise as possible.
Tip #2: Make your social media policy document easy to access
The easier it is for team members to access your social media policy, the better. We recommend uploading your policy document to a shared digital workspace or file storage system, as well as issuing it to new team members during onboarding.
Tip #3: Clear language and definitive messaging
Write your policy in clear language, and definitively state the brand’s position on each point. Don’t leave too much of the policy open to interpretation.
Tip #4: Keep refreshing your social media policy as a living document
Your social media policy will sometimes need to be updated, to reflect changes in social media best practice and lessons learned over time. We suggest you maintain your social media policy as a living document, and notify team members whenever important changes are made.
The best social media policies combine rule-setting with guidance
There are lots of different ways to approach a social media policy, and it’s clear that each brand needs to choose the right fit for its own unique approach to social.
At one extreme, we have social media policies that focus solely on stating rules and the punishments that will result if those rules are broken. At the other end of the spectrum, some examples read more like reference material than company policy.
Our advice is to bring together an even mix of rules and recommendations in your social media policy. This approach will help you strike an appropriate tone that empowers team members with knowledge, whilst reasonably notifying them of what they can and can’t do. The likely result is better social media use across your team, and better social media outcomes for your brand.