Sound strategy and an awareness of legal risks should guide an association's policies for online social networking.
Although associations are increasingly embracing social media, many have taken a haphazard approach to building and maintaining online communities. That's a mistake, according to social media experts, who say an organization's online networking efforts should be strategic and guided by a social media policy that steers the association clear of legal danger zones.
When the Society for Human Resource Management came up with its own set of social media policies using a cross-functional team of employees, it also developed a social media strategy. SHRM takes the time to explain both to employees. "By communicating policies [to employees], you really empower them, and that's why we did policy and strategy at the same time," says Curtis Midkiff, manager of public relations and social media relations for SHRM. "The employee sees the bigger picture."
Experts share the following tips for creating thoughtful policies grounded in strategy and mindful of legal risks that can lurk in members' and employees' social media activities:
Involve the chief executive from the beginning. CEOs who charge others with figuring out how to use social media for the greater good should not be surprised when they get an inadequate return on investment, says Terrance Barkan, CAE, chief strategist and CEO of the consulting firm SocialStrat. It's important for executives to lead off with goals and objectives.
Make social media policies, not LinkedIn or Facebook policies. Remember MySpace? Platforms will come and go; specific ones can be addressed through training.
Create different policies for different categories of stakeholders. For example, managers who hire and fire need to have a hands-off relationship with social media, unlike an employee who uses social media as part of his or her job. Likewise, policies should guide employees and board members to distinguish between making personal statements and official ones. "If you are not authorized to speak on behalf of the association, then you must put a disclaimer out there for what you say," says attorney Sherri Way, a senior partner at Krendl Krendl Sachnoff & Way, P.C.
Be sure to cover the association's obligation to employees. "If you do adopt a social media policy, you are going to want to expressly state in that policy that nothing therein is intended to or shall be construed to prohibit or interfere with an employee's rights under the National Labor Relations Act," says Way.
Train employee users to spot basic liabilities. "You don't need to know everything about antitrust and other legal concerns, you just need to know enough for the red light to come up so that you can follow up with legal counsel," says Barbara Dunn, attorney and partner at Howe & Hutton, Ltd.
Avoid having a volunteer or employee as "sole administrator." It's prudent to have more than one administrator holding the keys to any online forum, in case of turnover.
Enforce policies consistently to keep them valid. For example, ignoring several trademark infringements could result in forfeiting trademark protections.
Whitney Redding is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on social media risks, see "Legal Risks of Social Media," by Whitney Redding, Associations Now, December 2011.