Social Shepherds

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Sometimes transparency has its limits. Richard Brewer-Hay, chief blogger for online-auction site eBay, might have learned that the hard way.

“As most of you know,” he wrote on his eBayInk.com blog in early March, “I’ve been reporting eBay’s Quarterly earnings results via this blog and specifically covering the calls live on Twitter for the past three quarters…. I did it without checking with our Legal team first. Not the best strategy for your faithful corporate blogger and, after they found out, I had to meet with them to discuss my strategy and thinking behind the reports.”

Brewer-Hay recalls the eBay attorneys weren’t too fond of his openness via Twitter and asked that he preface each live-twittering session with a disclosure statement, 140 characters at a time. Although his twittering hadn’t led to any missteps, the company decided to reshape its social media guidelines as a preventive measure.

Many enterprises are developing social strategies to become more transparent, which is great for customers and corporations in general. (See our December 2008 cover story, “Transparency.”) There’s always some amount of risk, however.

To mitigate this risk, ground rules ensure that employee bloggers and management are on the same page. “We have a social media and blogging policy and a code of conduct at Sprint that we link to on the home page of Sprint Space, our social networking and blogging community for employees,” says Justin Goldsborough, the telecommunications provider’s social media manager. “The policies cover a few main ideas—no sharing proprietary info, no personal attacks or inappropriate language, and, yes, we do offer a disclaimer for employees to use on personal blog sites. I post it at the end of each of my blog entries.” Aside from requiring a safe-harbor statement at the start of any blog material about his work at Sprint, Goldsborough says that company management is fairly flexible — in fact, encouraging — in terms of employee involvement with social media.

Medical research and education provider Mayo Clinic has been encouraging online collaboration among its patients and employees for several years now. Patients blog about experiences on the Mayo Clinic Web site and employees participate as well, says Lee Aase, the clinic’s manager for syndication and social media.

Developing guidelines was a crucial step in boosting participation, Aase says. “By not engaging employees or offering training, you could run a risk that they may commit a well-intended…faux pas,” he adds.
More than 3,500 people list affiliations with Mayo Clinic on Facebook, Aase says, and the clinic has its own YouTube channel and a community blog/forum called Sharing Mayo Clinic on its Web site.

Aase says that, through the guidelines, he hopes to make it clear to employees that being transparent online is more than a priority, it’s essential. Thanks to the clinic’s large presence on the social Web, he adds, “[stakeholders] are already there. It’s our job to give them guidance on how to do it right.” Doing it right means writing in the first person, communicating proactively, and owning up to mistakes. The guidelines help prevent objectionable activities that could potentially occur on Mayo Clinic–owned sites or outside portals.

Technology giant Intel is one company that has been praised for its transparent stance on social media guidelines. Thorough, clear, and publicly posted, Intel’s guidelines essentially state that any writer will personally be on the line should she put the company at risk. One particular point: “In online social networks, the lines between public and private, personal and professional are blurred. Just by identifying yourself as an Intel employee, you are creating perceptions about Intel by our shareholders, customers, and the general public — and perceptions about you by your colleagues and managers. Do us all proud.”

But no matter how clearly companies seek to define the lines, they keep blurring. Keeping business information separate from personal is becoming increasingly difficult because of business adoption of social media — and because of the growth of the social Web in general. For that reason, organizations are realizing they need to arm employees appropriately.

“Our social media guidelines are always evolving because social media is always evolving,” Goldsborough says. “We have regular conversations with legal and HR to review where we stand.” 

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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