Do You Accept the Terms of Engagement?

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In the scope of social media guidelines, technology companies Intel and IBM have emerged as poster children for establishing protocol. (See “Social Shepherds,” June 2009, for more on that.) That poster needs to make room for at least one more exemplar—and it happens to be a CRM company. In July, SAP posted its social media guidelines and links to the public rulebook were being twittered almost immediately.

Timo Elliott, a senior director of strategic marketing for SAP BusinessObjects and also an SAP Web 2.0 evangelist and advocate, and Sean MacNiven, head of Web services for SAP Global Communications, led the effort to establish guidelines. Elliott says that, to his knowledge, SAP had yet to be burned by social media, but the guidelines were a preventive mechanism to avoid any potential pitfalls. The impetus, he says, mostly came not from high-level management, but from SAP employees increasingly interested in Web 2.0 activities such as blogs and Twitter, but unsure of the formalities involved. SAP already had a few guidelines in place for online participation, but they needed to be updated and expanded.

Elliott and MacNiven set out in true Web 2.0 fashion: Starting on the SAP Web 2.0 blog, the duo put up a wiki for employees to collaborate on how to think about social media. SAP’s internal collaboration platform proved useful for gathering ideas. Then the pair focused those ideas into a cohesive set of guidelines—not the easiest task in the world.

“We tried to…codify common sense, which is harder than it sounds,” Elliott says. “We tried very hard to keep it as short as we could.We didn’t want to overwhelm people with too much detail.”The document contains such points as “Separate Opinions from Facts” and “Identify Yourself.” Elliott says SAP’s stance is that employees are going to be participating in social media regardless of rules. The guidelines have to serve as a framework for adding value.

Some organizations, Elliott says, don’t feel the same about openness. An employee at a competitor told him that not only could he not blog the way Elliott does, he needed legal approval to blog at all. Michael Thomas, national president of the CRM Association and consultant for New Fire Social Media, says that not only will organizations be rapidly adopting social media participation guidelines similar to SAP’s, but those guidelines will become  a mainstay in employee handbooks. Thomas says that he wouldn’t be surprised to see departments or organizations create special training for employees to complete before using social media tools. “I remember the days of sexual-harassment training in the workplace. Social media participation guidelines should be no different,” Thomas says.“A violation in either sense can put the reputation as well as the financial stability of a company at risk.”

Thomas says that companies need to equip their employees not only with social media tools, but also with responsibility for the corporate message. No matter how well served an organization is by modeling its efforts on those by forerunners such as SAP and IBM, it’s important to keep its own corporate brand and culture at the heart of the guidelines. Organizations, Elliott says, should frame their guidelines with the idea that social media should complement an employee’s job—not detract from it or rewrite it. “Getting the balance right is key,” he says.

“What SAP…has done is create an extension to the guidelines utilizing Web 2.0 technology,” Thomas says. “Utilizing the same technology to make sure everyone is ‘singing from the same hymnal’ is a smart idea.”

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