Many small businesses do not have a social media policy and there are a number of reasons for this. First there is a lack of awareness of what it is and why a small business might need one. Second, small business owners, especially if they are at or near baby boomer age, often sense that they do not know as much about social media as their younger employees, and so lack the confidence to (or knowledge of how to) develop a social media policy. Third, there is reluctance to change, e.g. due to fear that having such a policy might negatively affect relations with employees; and fourth, of course, is the fact that small business owners are often too busy running their business to think about social media beyond putting their posts up on Facebook. Despite all of these reasons, small business owners should take the time to evaluate whether they need a social media policy.
What is a social media policy? It is a company’s official position on social media usage laying out strict rules, guidelines and/or best practices for employees regarding various social media platforms relative to company image and branding, internal and external communication, confidentiality, intellectual property, industry compliance regulations, broader legal regulations, cybersecurity, and so forth. A social media policy answers questions such as the following. Who does and who does not officially represent the business on social media and on which social media platforms? What are the intended purposes of the social media use for the company? What information can and cannot be shared? What language or images can or cannot be used? What are prohibited usages of social media? What legal regulations need to be complied with? To what extent do the company’s policies extend into personal social media usage by all employees? What about use of company property for producing personal content? What about use of mobile devices while driving or on a construction site? What are the liability issues and other risks that the policy is intended to mitigate? What are an employee’s rights with respect to social media usage? Is there any expectation of privacy? Are there protected communications? What computers and devices (company or personal) can and cannot be used on social media platforms? Is there a protocol for passwords and log-in information? What training and resources are to be provided for both those employees whose work involves social media usage and for those whose work does not? There is a lot for a business owner to think about here.
There are at least three trends that are driving larger businesses to have social media policies. One is the fact that a higher percentage of their workforce is using social media and is using social media more. As older employees who use social media less are leaving the workforce, younger employees who use social media more are joining and moving up in the workforce – and almost everyone of working age is using social media in some capacity or another, either for work or personal purposes. The second trend is that as social media platforms proliferate, they are developing more potential applications for use in work environments as well as non-work environments. Consequently, as there are more work uses for social media across more platforms, social media becomes more embedded in businesses. The third trend is that work-life balance is frequently being replaced by work-life integration. This means that the lines between work and non-work become blurred, easily leading to lack of separation between work and personal social media usage. This lack of separation can manifest itself with respect to employee time spent on social media, company computers/devices being used for personal purposes and personal computers/devices being used for company purposes, the content produced or followed on social media, use of social media as a form of communication, and also how customers, stakeholders and the general public view a person’s social media use as reflective of his or her employer. It is not just larger businesses that should be thinking about these trends, for small businesses are affected by them as well; and just having a blanket policy against social media use does not work.
It is important for small business owners to have a good understanding of the potential ways in which their businesses are impacted by both their own and also their employees’ social media usage. What are the potential benefits, the potential risks, and the legal regulations relevant to the business? From there decisions can be made regarding roles and responsibilities, rules/guidelines/best practices, and training and resources. Examples of potential benefits include opportunities for marketing products and services, market research, brand monitoring, communication with customers, intra-organizational communication, project management, and recruiting and managing employees. Examples of potential risks include brand damage, damaged customer relations, loss of productivity, loss of intellectual property, and financial losses due to lawsuits or violations of industry regulations. Given social media and workforce trends, these are issues about which small business owners should give serious consideration.
At the WU Center of America’s SBDC Kansas, one of the services that we offer is advising on social media policy for small businesses.
Laurie Pieper, Ph.D.
America’s SBDC Kansas