Throughout the month of August we’ve been talking about building communities. So today we’re going to talk about something that’s very important to have once people start engaging in your communities: social media guidelines.

There are several groups for whom you should create guidelines, not only because your business interests need protecting, but also because sometimes people need to be saved from themselves. For whatever reason, social media sometimes seems to make people forget themselves in ways that they never would in face-to-face interactions. And whether or not those mishaps have legal repercussions for you, it’s important to limit them in order to protect the brand you’re trying to build. No matter how much followers may love a brand, if their social media communities become unpleasant or filled with negativity, those followers will start to head for the exits.

There are 3 groups you should consider writing guidelines for, and you’ll need to make them all available on your website and social communities.

1. Community Members
Whether on your website, blog, Facebook, Twitter, or on other community profiles, you’ll want to share some guidelines. First, this is a good place to say what your goals for the community were when you created it. Is it a place for people to come together and discuss issues? A hub where people can come to stay up to date on company happenings? Figure out the community’s purpose and specify that here.

The most important purpose of these guidelines is telling members of the community how you expect them to conduct themselves. This is useful because it not only sets the tone for the group and encourages good behavior, it also sets expectations and clears you to remove content that violates your terms. Removing content posted by followers can garner a bad reaction sometimes, so it’s good to be able to give the reasoning that it violated your clearly stated terms of use. Check out the social media community “dos and don’ts” set forth by General Mills:

2. Employee Guidelines: General 
Setting rules for employees on social media can be a very sticky undertaking for legal reasons. But it’s important to do because if you fail to tell employees how you’d prefer they behave on social media, you have no leg to stand on if there is a conflict. The least controversial policy you can make is to limit employees’ use of social media while they’re on the clock. Beyond that, when getting into the actual content of what they post on their personal social media accounts about you and your business, it’s best to tread carefully. Employee Benefit News has created an incredibly helpful summary of the guidelines for employers from the National Labor Relations Board, which can be read in full here.
Here are a few important highlights:

–  Employers may prohibit employee “rants”
–  Employees’ opinions are largely protected
–  Savings clauses are recommended, but may not win the day
–  Employers remain entitled to enforce important workplace policies, even in the context of social media

3. Employee Guidelines: Marketing
In addition to the guidelines you set out for general employee behavior, you also need to create clear rules and expectations for employees who actually speak for your company on social media. Anyone in your marketing or communications department who has access to your various communities should be very clear on things like the general voice of the company, the company’s stance on controversial issues (and the discussion of them), how customer complaints are resolved, etc.

Many of you will remember the infamous Applebee’s social media fiasco that occurred earlier this year when the company fired a server named Chelsea for posting a photo of a customer receipt from another server’s table. The woman who left the credit card receipt had crossed out the tip and asked if she gives 10% to God, why should the server get 18%. The incident went viral all over social media, with massive support being thrown behind Chelsea, and many people demanding that she be re-hired and threatening boycotts.

They company handled things alright at first, but as the incident dragged on and on, someone at Applebee’s finally snapped. Sometime around 3am, when the comments grew into the tens of thousands, the company’s Facebook wall was disabled and a defensive statement was posted on the page. Cue social media firestorm. The situation went from bad to worse because of the actions of one person with access to the company’s page. The moral: create a document and sit down with anyone who has login credentials to discuss exactly how your company handles a variety of situations. You’ll be glad you did!

Do you have guidelines for your online communities? If so, post a link to them below and we’ll check them out!

About the Author: Sarah Matista is the Online Content Specialist and resident blogger at Webs. Loves branding, marketing, whales. Get more from Sarah on Webs’ Blog and Google+.

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