As social media has become pervasive, employers are grappling with policies for use of social media by employees.

Businesses wonder if they should encourage employees to mention their employers on their personal social media accounts or discourage or even forbid mentions of the company. Some companies hope to gain substantial PR and marketing benefits; others fear employee social media comments will reflect badly on the company or lead to a PR crisis. Employees may be equally unsure about if and how they can mention their employers online.

The key is to create a social media policy that establishes guidelines for behavior, helps prevent or contain a public relations crisis, provides organizations recourse against improper employee actions, and gives employees confidence that they are acting within the rules when mentioning their organization.

Beware the Landmines

Employee social media use can be a field of landmines. Laws on the issue are not yet clear cut. Arment Dietrich CEO Gini Dietrich at SpinSucks points out that the National Labor Relations Board rules state that employers cannot forbid workers from commenting on their work life in public. However, companies can require employees to sign confidentiality contracts, and they have legal recourse if harmed by an employee’s posts.

Social media policy statements are not one-size-fits-all projects. Organizations take different approaches when drafting the documents. Some are long legal statements; others basically tell employees to use common sense. Policies differ substantially based on their purpose and the particular group they target: employees using social media on company time, corporate users posting on behalf of the company, or employees posting on their individual private accounts.

Social Media Policy Roadmap

Shoutlet, an enterprise social marketing platform, suggests social media policies include the following elements. Many apply to both employees using social media on company time as well as their private accounts.

∙ Instruct people to reveal themselves as company employees or representatives. Government regulations require disclosures of relationships.

∙ Prohibit sharing confidential information or information not meeting regulations in your industry. Give examples of what is considered confidential, and advise employees not to post if they are in doubt.

∙ Brief employees on copyright laws. Inform them about the laws on re-using articles, images and other content they find on the Internet.

∙ Urge them to avoid arguments. Engaging in “flame outs” is a no-no as they reflect unfavorably on the organization. Don’t post inflammatory comments — or respond to them.

∙ Protect customers. Describe how employees can talk about customer interactions and what can be handled on networks and what must be handled through private channels.

∙ Refer to other company policies. Most organizations have policies on employee behaviors. The same rules apply.

∙ Promote proper etiquette. For instance, instruct employees posting for the company not to make more than one request for a client or prospect to connect with them in a 90-day period. The goal is to have conversations rather than push agendas.

∙ Offer help. Tell employees who to contact if they have questions or if they would like more training or resources.

Be Careful with Multiple Clients

If employees of PR agencies are posting for clients, urge them to double check that they are posting to the correct account, adds SpinSucks. Also, forbid employees from commenting on litigation or about clients, without specific permission. aggregated a long list of examples of social media polices for businesses, academic institutions, healthcare organizations, government agencies and other non-profits. The examples include policy statements from PR and marketing firms. The list and full text documents form a comprehensive resource for most any type of organization to craft a social media policy statement.

Bottom Line: With social media now pervasive, a policy for employee use has become imperative. Craft an employee social media policy to prevent PR crisis, protect your organization against rogue employees, and provide employees support and guidance when they are using social media both on company time and for their personal accounts.