It’s one thing to commit a faux pas in your personal life, and the majority of us have done so at one point or another. The consequences of communication blunders within a business environment can be substantial, as they carry potential for adverse impacts to an individual’s reputation and career.

While you and your colleagues doubtless hold yourselves to high standards, many corporate secretaries and other governance professionals have witnessed (or supported endeavours to resolve) at least one business gaffe. Add social media to the mix, and you can count on amplification of not only the exposure of such missteps; there’s also amplification of the potential reputational hits to the organization. Reputational black eyes can, of course, adversely impact an organization’s financial performance.

This sounds like a risk, doesn’t it? Governance professionals are constantly reminded of how significantly the world of governance has evolved in recent years. In the context of good governance, it’s worth considering how your Communications colleagues’ portfolios have also evolved. At least one person within your Comms team likely monitors and determines whether and how to respond to social media posts about the organization.

Why a Social Media Policy

Well harnessed, social media can be a powerful, far-reaching business tool. Social media security breaches or communications gone awry can create unwanted and sometimes unnecessary exposure – unnecessary when the faux pas are committed or compounded by employees. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that, in the absence of a corporate social media policy, management and the organization itself should be prepared shoulder some of the responsibility in instances of social media failures.

It’s logical that your board of directors maintains oversight of core organizational policies; has a social media policy found its way yet on your board’s agendas and work plans? If not, consider this another opportunity for you to add value to your organization.

In order for a board to approve or oversee such a policy, it should understand opportunities, issues and incidents associated with social media – risks and rewards. Even if your organization doesn’t already have policy language on this front, it’s likely that social media reputational and security risks and mitigation strategies have already made their way to your risk register or are reflected in your enterprise risk management (ERM) documents.

Board recruitment trends may have resulted in the inclusion of tech- and communications-savvy directors around your particular boardroom table. Even so, it may be helpful to invest time in a board education session that can position the board as a whole to provide effective oversight of a social media policy.

There have been multiple references to the wild west nature of social media. While we’re accustomed to hearing the term used in the context of corporations, even the best-intended individuals have voiced views or shared images or information on social media without apparent thought to potential legal ramifications. Employees can be stellar brand ambassadors for their organizations, and so the board will want to inform, rather than squash, individual voices. In establishing a social media policy, the board can not only guide those well-intended employees; the policy itself represents a form of risk management.

What It Can Solve

As with other organizational policies, a social media policy should provide guidance on how the organization and its employees are to conduct themselves – in this case, digitally. Depending on your sector, the board may want to consider scope. Some higher education institutions specify that their social media policies apply to students as well as employees.

A social media policy needn’t be exhaustive if it addresses some of its expectations by embedding references to responsibility for adherence to the organization’s code or standards of conduct, or its respectful environment or best practices statements. You’re likely already mindful of the pitfalls of using restrictive language in policy development; that’s worth keeping in mind as you venture down this particular path.

Again as with other policies, it’s practical to stipulate – within the policy itself, or in the board-approved annual calendar or work plan – expectations that the board will routinely review the policy to ensure its ongoing currency.

What should the board look for as it considers management’s proposed social media policy? Canadian-based, worldwide social media management platform Hootsuite has identified policy elements such as accountability, roles and responsibilities, rules and regulations, and potential legal and security risks of which employees should be aware. It also recommends establishing distinct sections within the policy: one articulating policies for the organization’s official social media accounts, and another section specifically for employees.

If you’re active on social media, you’ll know it’s no coincidence that many individuals’ accounts contain statements to the effect that the views expressed on their accounts are personal – and neither representative of, nor made on behalf of, their respective employers. Such disclaimers serve as recognition that these individuals have assumed personal responsibility for their posts and communications. They suggest that the individual is cognizant of potential consequences associated with their social media communications and, as such, imply adherence to policy.

Final Words on a Social Media Policy

That’s because social media policies encourage employees’ adoption of specific practices, ranging from disclosure of an individual’s corporate affiliation to respecting diversity, or being ethical and responsible in one’s social media communications. You’ll find clear messaging on accountability and personal legal responsibilities. Policies may advise against falsehoods and against disclosing information or images that are confidential, sensitive or otherwise not intended for public consumption. These cautions may be accompanied by identification of ramifications should an employee fail to adhere to policy. Other policies specifically caution against social media communications that could represent conflict of interest, be it perceived or actual. Will your policy reflect a commitment to routine reporting to the board, and timely reporting of policy breaches and action taken to mitigate such breaches?

This brings us to introduction and implementation of a social media policy. While the board is responsible for oversight, it’s management that’s responsible for implementing the policy. As the policy is drafted, revised and approved, the board will reasonably want to know how management will communicate it to all who are impacted. The board should expect reporting, at an appropriate level, on the policy launch and on plans as to how future hires will be made aware of the social media policy.

After all, if directors and management teams are still navigating their way through the wild west of social media, imagine how well served employees will be with provision of a framework and guidance on their business-related social media usage.