Social Media Policies: Risks and Rules

Smiling woman using smartphoneThink of it as offering guidelines, not restrictions.

By Becky Livingston
The Accountant’s Social Media Handbook

Social media policies and social media guidelines have become an essential component of social media marketing strategy.

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In this post, case studies, examples and tools will be shared to help you develop a social media policy that complies with the National Labor Relations Act and is effective in your workplace, including:

  1. The risks of posting on personal vs. firm social networking profiles
  2. Free speech rights and what employers can prohibit employees from saying online
  3. What type of information should be confidential, what’s okay to share and how to tell the difference
  4. Your personal privacy rights at work and the rights employers have to monitor how their employees use social media
  5. How not to infringe on the rights of copyright and intellectual property owners
  6. How the FTC Disclosure Guidelines apply to employees who use social media for work

Disclaimer: I’m not a social media policy lawyer. Consult with social media policy legal counsel before finalizing any social media policies within your firm. This post is meant only as a guideline.

What is a social media policy?

According to Search Compliance, a social media policy (also called a social networking policy) is a corporate code of conduct that provides guidelines for employees who post content on the Internet either as part of their job or as a private person.

The goal of having a policy is to help set expectations for social media for all staff. In many case, these policies offer guidance on how employees should identify themselves on social media site, especially when representing the firm, plus what types of content may and may not be shared.

Social media policy length varies by firm. Some policies are several pages of legalese, while others simply post a single-page bulleted list.

Why have a social media policy?

A social media policy may be the firm’s first line of defense when mitigating risk. According to Social Media Today, it also:

  • Provides employees with guidelines for communicating via social channels
  • Offers clarity around the firm’s values and culture
  • Sets expectations from the moment someone becomes an employee, to help proactively prevent problems related to social media usage
  • Allows the firm to allocate responsibility for content development, approvals and process
  • Reduces time when dealing with unauthorized use of social media
  • Aids in reducing risk and legal exposure for the firm

Laying the Groundwork

Social media policies can be tricky, especially for a regulated industry such as the accounting profession. Before sharing your policy, be sure to tackle some basic groundwork ahead of time, such as:

  • Monitoring the web for discussions related to your brand
  • Understanding the firm’s objectives for using social media
  • Prioritizing business and social media objectives within the firm’s overall business goals
  • Including legal counsel in your risk discussions
  • Determining if social media insurance is something to consider
  • Identifying how policies and guidelines will be shared
  • Developing social media workflows
  • Educating staff about the use of social media for the firm’s brand, and what that means

Social Media Policy Best Practices

A social media policy should be considered a personnel policy that aligns with other firm policies, such as code of conduct, ethics, conflict of interest and confidentiality.

As with any employee guidelines, it’s important to communicate those guidelines, but to also provide the information in a simple, clear and easy-to-understand fashion. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Share clear goals for social media use and how it aligns with the firm’s goals.
  2. Define key concepts and terms, clearly.
  3. Use plain language to get points across and to demonstrate examples.
  4. Write specific examples of prohibited content.
  5. Tailor the policy to the firm’s culture.
  6. Do not rely on “savings” clauses to get you or your staff out of trouble.
  7. Review the FINRA and SEC guidelines about social media use for CPA firms.
  8. Ensure the policy guidelines to not break and National Labor Relations Act – Section 7 laws.

Mitigating Risk

Once the risks have been identified, you can also develop techniques for reducing it. Some firms use techniques such as avoiding certain social media platforms, prohibiting some activities or limiting who can participate. However, those techniques are more about control rather than managing risk.

To help mitigate risk, consider:

  • Addressing copyright and antitrust laws so staff has a clear understanding of what that means and how it could impact the firm if breached
  • Updating the firm’s insurance policies to provide coverage for social media work
  • Monitoring the social webs through searches, alerts and hashtags so you know what people are saying about the firm

Things You Cannot Do

It’s also important to let staff know what they cannot do when it comes to social media engagement. They should not share confidential or client information. Proprietary information should also be restricted. Committing fraud via social media or breaking any SEC regulations is also non-negotiable. Lastly, employers cannot request employees' personal account logins or passwords, at least in 28 states.

Examples

Before implementing a social media policy within your firm, take note of certain legal guidelines on the National Labor Relations website regarding policies. In the end, the policy is meant to offer guidance rather than restrictions for staff to share the great things your firm is doing.

Consider how social media can have a positive influence on your firm, from recruiting to lead generation. Then explore how you can use it, and find the right policy language that aligns with your firm’s culture.

Below is a short list of additional resources to use before creating your policy

What’s your biggest social media policy challenge?

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