Taming the Wild West of social media (part 1)

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When the Internet became accessible and people began browsing through the Web, there seemed to be a default notion that somehow not all laws applied in the online world. Or at least they didn't apply in the same way, or to the same degree. Students used the Internet to copy work for school reports while others set up gambling and music-sharing services that would normally be illegal in many countries if conducted offline. Even today, some people still think nothing of copying online photos and images to use in their own material without regard to copyright laws. So it's not surprising that some are using social networking tools with little to no regard of existing laws.

In the past, many businesses avoided legal ramifications from misuse of online sites because they could just block websites offering illegal services. But there are several problems with blocking social networking. First, it's not the content that is usually the problem (as in gambling). What gets an employer in trouble with social networking is how their staff is using it. Second, it's difficult to effectively block all social networking — and it will only get more challenging because it's now integrated into many regular websites. Plus, employees are also able to connect using their own mobile devices.

So how can an organization understand and manage the legal risks? Like most issues we deal with, it's always best to have policy and procedures in place. Then back that up with training. This is important to do whether you've been using social media for years without a policy or are just getting started. The basic steps for going through this process are as follows:

Establish a communications committee
Some places put a lot of effort into discussing social networking in a vacuum. But its use should really be part of your overall communication and branding strategy. By setting up a communications committee, you can not only work through issues surrounding social media, but also use the opportunity to fine-tune guidance for email, press releases, newsletters, phone use, and other related methods of talking to the public and other staff.

Create goals, mission, and audience
Once you get your committee in place, it's important to define the goal and mission of your agency's use of communication. Is it to provide customer service, information, education, invoicing, or any of the other tasks related to your work? Goals that are well understood will help the committee choose the best means of communication for each. And knowing the target audience helps you choose the best method to reach the right people.

Investigate methods of communication
Identify and research communication methods available to your agency, how other agencies are using these methods, and for what purpose. This is important because perhaps not all tools are accessible or desirable. And sometimes it isn't just online communication that's restricted. For example, some agencies are unable to invest in publishing hard copy of newsletters due to cost.

Identify key staff
Figure out who in the agency is communicating. Usually everyone can be regarded as a potential communicator, even if some might only do so on an internal basis. You'll find that most people are communicating on different levels and for different purposes. These should be identified along with the individuals and groups involved.

Create policies and procedures

Fortunately, many agencies have shared their policies online for use by others. A few can be found at http://socialmediagovernance.com/policies.php. Using these as a starting point or as a template can be useful and save time. And most important, have your attorney review and approve your document.

Back it all up with training
This step is often left out of many policy and procedure exercises. But if your staff doesn't understand your policies and how to apply them to tasks, chances are they will not comply. And because most problems occur because of poor communication, training your staff in this skill set will also help improve internal operations and delivery of external services.

Look for my next post (Part 2 ) to learn more about what can happen when your staff is allowed to communicate with little to no guidance.



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About the Blogger

Pam Broviak

thumbnail image A former senior editor of PUBLIC WORKS, Pam Broviak publishes the Public Works Group Blog at http://www.publicworksgroup.com/blog. (All views expressed in this blog are her own and not those of PUBLIC WORKS.)