My latest IP for Your Business column has been published in the Southeast Texas Record, and its sister publications the West Virginia Record and the Madison (Illinois) Record, focused upon crafting an effective social media policy for your business.  With the Record’s permission I am reposting the article on the Blog.  Click here to read the column at the Record.  And if you are an executive or business owner that is reading this and thinking that you do not need to worry about social media because you do not allow, read the article.  It will give you some pause and may change your mind.   Here is the article:

Social media is a terrifying unknown for many businesses. There are countless opportunities to lose control of your corporate message. And as I have discussed before, there are new and varied ways to have your trademarks and brands stolen or diluted.

But an equally serious concern is what your employees are saying about your company. Every employee is now potentially an unsupervised spokesperson for your company twenty-four hours per day, 365 days per year. And each of your employee’s unapproved statements is being categorized by search engines and forever identified with your company on Twitter, Facebook, personal employee blogs and other third party sites.

How does a reasonable company react to each employee being turned into an unregulated source of public information? Some are paralyzed. Others ban all use of social media related to the company. This is a facially reasonable approach.

You no longer have to worry about your employees’ intentional statements about the company. But there are two significant problems with this approach.

First, you will drive some users underground. They will continue generating public content, but will attempt to do it anonymously. Of course, you can generally find them, but that can backfire as a public strategy, and you may not find them before damage is done, intentionally or accidentally.

Second, your employees likely see a distinction between their personal and work lives that may be far less clear than they realize. For example, an employee might post the following on Facebook and Twitter:

"@EngineerJim is sick as a dog and not thinking clearly, but working through it so that I have enough personal days for Orlando next month."

It is an innocent post by a good employee who is making a common mistake. But if a customer that has a big deadline that day is part of Engineer Jim’s social network, your customer may see things differently. And the results could be even worse if an employee accidentally tweets a detail of a confidential project on the date of a key product launch.

The safest approach to social media is to allow your employees to use social media as part of a broader corporate social media policy. Working with counsel to develop a comprehensive social media policy will protect your company and allow you to harness the value of employees spreading the message of your company’s value and benefits. Here are the broad outlines of such a social media policy:

1. Make it Clear

The policy must be clear to be effective. So, write in plain English. Whenever possible, use examples of acceptable and unacceptable postings. Examples help guide your employees, sometimes more than the written policies. But make it clear that the examples are not comprehensive.

2. Allow for Questions

Social media changes quickly, and your policy cannot keep up with it in real time. So, provide a contact for questions. And because social media is fast-paced, commit to getting answers to most questions within a few days or at least a week.

3. Identify What is Allowed

Make the rules as clear as possible, and, again, use examples. Identify whether postings may occur at work, on breaks, or never doing work hours. Lay out what types of posts are off-limits as work-related, such as the Engineer Jim example above.

Determine whether an employee can have a blog about the company or within the employee’s job area. On one hand, it is easiest to exclude these blogs. But before doing that, look at other companies like Sun Microsystems and Microsoft that have successfully allowed employee blogs. If you do allow blogs about the company, consider requiring that employees register the blogs. A registration requirement makes sure you know which employees are blogging and allows you to follow what they write. In addition to being a valuable marketing tool, following employee blogs can be an excellent indicator of employee issues and concerns.

4. Develop a Review Process

As with all things, mistakes happen. So, prepare a plan for dealing with any objectionable or harmful content posted by employees. Identify how quickly content must be removed upon your request, and outline any appeal process. Also, make any consequences for publishing objectionable or harmful content clear.

5. Give Someone Oversight Responsibility

Identify someone, perhaps a General Counsel or even someone in Human Resources, to administer and oversee the policy. Giving an individual ownership and responsibility insures that the program does not become a forgotten section of the employee handbook. That person should also be responsible for setting up a variety of searches to identify any internet or social media mentions of the company and its brands.

Developing this policy takes some work, but it will pay dividends in terms of employee satisfaction, message management, and preventing social media accidents. And it will allow your company to harness more of the value of social media and the internet at a relatively low cost.