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Social Media Guidelines ~ The Chicken and/or the Egg?

Which comes first? The engagement or the guidelines?

It seems a slightly moribund point but a very important one to consider.

For those firms who have let the genie out the bottle, and lifted the lock-down for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, it is vitally important to ensure that those engaging, internally, externally or using mobile devices, know of, and more importantly, understand the limits of what they can/not do. Get it wrong and the consequences could be dire.

In short, it is about managing the risk/reward in such a way as to make the process or engagement worthwhile – yes ROI is important but it is not the only thing to consider: brand and reputational damage has far greater reach.

Law firms are late to the party. IBM had a Wiki in 2005 to “create a set of guidelines for all IBMers who wanted to blog.” How many law firms or professional practices can say they have created a policy to deal exclusively with blogging? Or perhaps something like Slideshare or one of the social bookmarkging sites like Delicious?

You could go for something pithy like Best Buy: “Be smart. Be respectful. Be human.” But that it unlikely to pass scrutiny with any self-respecting lawyer who will say it is simply not fit for purpose (‘coach and horses’ and all that stuff).

It may well be that the engagement, given that it may have flown under the radar, entirely unnoticed for a while, may inform the guidelines but make sure that you undertake the exercise, if you do not already know, of who has been engaging and what issues may have arisen. You may be surprised with how much intelligence has been gathered that could benefit the firm.

If you are in the process of producing your firm-wide guidelines, you need to consider how prescriptive you want to be.

Some firms may allow for far greater discretion that others.

The problem is that as the technology and uptake is moving so quickly, it will be nigh on impossible to cover every single scenario. But the contra scenario, the broad and rather homely expressions like “use your discretion”, may be too woolly to be properly understood and it may deter wider uptake for fear that something may go wrong.

If you do allow the pendulum to swing in the direction of a prescriptive set of guidelines, then you would be well advised to provide some comprehensive training so that best practice, in a safe environment, can be rehearsed. You also need to consider how many people may end up using the platforms. You don’t want to create a document that is only read (if at all) by one person – the person who has access to, say, Twitter for and on behalf of the firm.

One option might be to use the power of the crowd – your workforce – to critique any policy (make sure you put a cut off date for comments) so that you achieve maximum buy in.

Most of the guidelines are a matter of common sense, and even issues relating to breach of confidence and defamation can usually be distilled down in such a way that people understand what is expected of them. Giving examples of best practice is helpful but can sometimes limit the compass of the discussion.

Make sure that a proper chain of command is established both in relation to the use and when something goes wrong. You should be thinking about your Fire Hose policy which will involve the communications team, PR or risk management. The important thing is for people to know what they should do if things go wrong.

If you find that you are playing catch up don’t wait for someone to ask for your guidelines. Get on with preparing them NOW. They are not meant to be perfect but just workable at this stage. Think of them like an Apple product. You know you are going to get a few glitches but at least you have something to show to your staff, clients and third parties. There will always be a newer version coming out soon.

~ JS ~