Companies are starting to regard social networking sites, forums and message boards as significant to the business. These forums contain important content, and companies recognise that they need to apply policies that govern the acceptable use of this content. But is it possible to define an acceptable standard for user generated content? Do you apply something that prohibits the use of social engagement tools in any form whilst inside the corporate firewall? Some companies prohibit blogging, or they block Facebook and Twitter through the corporate firewall. Some companies issue such severely restrictive policies that they are almost impossible to comply with.

ESPN, the sports news channel, has issued very specific and detailed guidelines for social networking for any of their staff engaged with the public discussing sports news:27

  • Personal websites and blogs that contain sports content are not permitted.

  • Prior to engaging in any form of social networking dealing with sports, you must receive permission from the supervisor as appointed by your department head.

  • ESPN.COM may choose to post sports related social media content.

  • If opts not to post sports related social media content created by ESPN talent, you are not permitted to report, speculate, discuss or give any opinions on sports related topics or personalities on your personal platforms.

  • The first and only priority is to serve ESPN sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content.

  • Assume at all times you are representing ESPN.

  • If you wouldn’t say it on the air or write it in your column, don’t tweet it.

  • Exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for your colleagues, business associates and our fans.

  • Avoid discussing internal policies or detailing how a story or feature was reported, written, edited or produced and discussing stories or features in progress, those that haven’t been posted or produced, interviews you’ve conducted, or any future coverage plans.

  • Steer clear of engaging in dialogue that defends your work against those who challenge it and do not engage in media criticism or disparage colleagues or competitors.

  • Be mindful that all posted content is subject to review in accordance with ESPN’s employee policies and editorial guidelines.

  • Confidential or proprietary company information or similar information of third parties who have shared such information with ESPN, should not be shared.

Any violation of these guidelines could result in a range of consequences, including but not limited to suspension or dismissal.

These steps are logical and considered, but perhaps a little too restrictive for employees. Some of the bullet points seem to oversimplify certain details. A lot of these guidelines could form part of the standard employee guidelines and be set out in an employee handbook, and reference made to this from the company’s social media policy.

In the 1920s the United States applied prohibition to alcohol, which immediately led to hundreds of illicit outlets springing up and operating illegally. There are indications that this level of restriction may foster similar behaviour online. Users will start to use their personal mobile devices to engage in digital conversations whilst at work.

Telstra, the Australian telecommunications and media company, had an innovative way to announce its social guidelines for its staff. It published its training guide on the web in an easy to read comic book format. This guide has links to videos, two of which have been published on YouTube. This is a great way to make sure everyone inside and outside the company sees the guidelines that Telstra has published, and knows how they work. They’re simple and straight forward too. Publishing in this way, online for everyone to see and search for on the web, is a great initiative. Telstra certainly appears to be leading the way here, and should be applauded for its efforts. The new form of engagement is all about discoverability, communication and channelling the torrent of information into something manageable, constructive and useful.

So what would a good corporate social media policy contain? Here are some core principles that I believe are a good foundation for policy guidelines:


  • Be respectful of others. Don’t insult, disparage, libel, defame, inflame or attack others.

  • Be true to yourself. Authenticity and integrity must underpin all of your communications.

  • Be accurate. Fake social media campaigns are soon exposed and credibility is soon lost.

  • Be respectful of corporate intellectual property. Protect copyright or confidential corporate information.

  • Bring value to your readers. They are potential future clients and connections and their satisfaction matters.

  • Be humble. You cannot be right all of the time. Acknowledge your errors and apologise with humility.

  • Be generous. Acknowledge other authors where you’ve used their work.

  • Be responsible. You are the company spokesperson in your external messaging.

  • Be thoughtful. An off the cuff comment can do immense damage to your reputation and corporate brand.

  • Be careful. Think before you post.

  • Do not speculate on matters that may prejudice your company in any legal case.

Another good tip when you’re writing your social media policy is to be concise. A good social media policy needs to be less than one page so that the contents are remembered. Keeping it simple is a great idea. IBM28 has a simple, easy to read blogging policy and social media policy, as does Intel,29 including these tips for engaging in global conversations:

  • Stick to your area of expertise and provide unique, individual perspectives on what’s going on at Intel and in the world.

  • Post meaningful, respectful comments—in other words, no spam and no remarks that are off-topic or offensive.

Intel’s rules of engagement follow similar themes to other companies which have published their guidelines on the web and can be summarised as follows:

  • Respect brands, copyrights and trademarks.

  • Add value to your customers and readers. Build a sense of community.

  • If it gives you pause, pause. If you’re about to publish something that makes you even the slightest bit uncomfortable, don’t shrug it off and hit ’send’.

Twitter guidelines

With the rise of Twitter for customer interaction, there are other specific policies that could be applied to microblogging. If you’re using Twitter as a way to communicate with your customers and provide great customer service from the brand, you might want to modify your style somewhat.


  • If you get customer questions, respond quickly to keep the dialogue flowing.

  • Ask questions of your audience—don—t just broadcast.

  • Do not be derogatory about your competitors.

  • Twitter should not be the only tool used for customer maintenance. All requests need to be redirected back to the appropriate support team for action and recording.

  • Respect corporate legal guidelines, and confidentiality.

  • If you’re using a specific Twitter name, like SubaruSupport, make sure that your messages are relevant to your brand.

  • If you have a corporate account, keep to corporate messages and don’t flood the stream with information about your personal life.

  • Tweet about what you know—stick to your area of expertise.

  • Make sure your messages are interesting or compelling or newsworthy.

  • Make sure that you are committed to maintaining your Twitter presence. Co-opt others into helping you populate the Twitter stream.

  • Be careful who you follow, and don’t automatically follow everyone who follows you. Watch out for automated bots, and aim for quality not quantity.

  • Use hashtags to talk about themes so you can search for tweets using these themes to track your metrics. Try to keep these hashtags short. You only have 140 characters, so #followfriday has, over time, been shortened to #ff to save space.

  • Retweet other interesting tweets.

  • Use short URLs like which have metrics showing click-through totals.

If you have a clearly defined social media policy and blogging policy and you have raised awareness amongst your staff and everyone follows the rules, then you don’t really need to not worry. Over time, you will find that internal conversations occur within your organisation, the users will self-police their behaviour, and brand advocates will ensure that your brand message stays consistent. However, you need to consider things that may go wrong.

Keeping things legal

Who are you on the web? What do people know about you? If you search for your brand you will find mentions of it, but there may be items on the web that you might never have known were there. On a personal level, these facts may be innocuous, like your daughter talking about you and the job you do on her Facebook page or Twitter feed. It may be others in your network tweeting about your holiday antics in Spain last summer, your rugby skills, or a photograph of you downing that last vodka shot in a club. These exchanges are out there on the web, and you can’t do anything about them’because you don’t actually own them. They are out of your control and they have the potential to do your reputation great harm. In addition to effective corporate policies and basic common sense over what you broadcast on the Internet, a question arises about where the legal boundaries lie.

During the snowfall in February 2009 a blogger in the UK, Ben Marsh, created a mashup application on the web. He used a Google map and overlaid the map with Twitter hashtags showing where all of the snow was falling in the UK. He also displayed the tweets marked with the hashtag #uksnow as they appeared on Twitter from users around the UK. The hashtag #uksnow was widely adopted and reported in the media. Rory Cellan-Jones from the BBC received a message from a reader, Julian Bray, who said that he had ‘invented‘ the hashtag and claimed it as his intellectual property.30 This seemed to be the first time anyone had claimed intellectual property rights over a hashtag‘after all, it‘s only a word. The website documents millions of hashtags in popular use on Twitter, and it‘s almost impossible to claim ownership of a word. The ability to do this could raise some interesting battles.

Twitter and copyright

If someone plagiarises content from a book and republishes it elsewhere, then the author has due recourse to the law of the land. If a piece of music is copied, cloned or reproduced, and the owner of the original piece of music can prove that the music has been plagiarised, then they also have a legal advantage in court. Trademarks are enforceable by law and counterfeit art is illegal. But what is the legal case if you repeat information that you found on Twitter or Facebook? Do you actually have any rights at all to the information you broadcast?

According to Twitter, what you write is yours.31 Twitter copyright policy states:

Twitter respects the intellectual property rights of others and expects users of the Services to do the same. We will respond to notices of alleged copyright infringement that comply with applicable law and are properly provided to us. If you believe that your Content has been copied in a way that constitutes copyright infringement, please provide us with the following information:

  1. a physical or electronic signature of the copyright owner or a person authorized to act on their behalf;

  2. identification of the copyrighted work claimed to have been infringed;

  3. identification of the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity and that is to be removed or access to which is to be disabled, and information reasonably sufficient to permit us to locate the material;

  4. your contact information, including your address, telephone number, and an email address;

  5. a statement by you that you have a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law; and

  6. a statement that the information in the notification is accurate, and, under penalty of perjury, that you are authorized to act on behalf of the copyright owner.

Facebook has multiple approaches to copyright information, but their main policy says:32

We respect the intellectual property rights of others and we prohibit users from posting content that violates another party’s intellectual property rights. When we receive a proper claim of IP infringement, we promptly remove or disable access to the allegedly infringing content. We also terminate the accounts of repeat infringers in appropriate circumstances.

So does this mean that if you retweet or share a comment on Twitter or Facebook, you are breaking copyright law? Theoretically, yes. However, tweets and comments are attributed to the owner of the tweet, typically via a retweet. Comments are attributed to the originator so that credit is given for their original quote. The United States Copyright Office Circular 34 states that copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions.33 Twitter is limited to 140 characters and theoretically a ‘short phrase‘ as opposed to a long paragraph of text from a publication or online article.

But who actually owns these tweets? Twitter and Facebook both say that it is the originator of the message who owns them. Of course, if you were so obsessed about copyright, then perhaps you wouldn’t broadcast your intellectual property on such a public site in the first place. Unless, of course, you want to have your information broadcast by your friends and your message amplified.

There might be someone on the web who may take issue with something you write.

Who owns your content?

Facebook changed its terms and conditions to reflect their stance about ownership of content:34

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license…to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, …reformat, modify, edit,… and distribute…, any User Content you (i) Post … or (ii) enable a user to Post, … and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, ….

The important bit is this:

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

Several blogs picked this up from Facebook and an outcry ensued. Facebook reverted to its old terms within a few days. But what does this mean? Well, hopefully those photos of you downing vodka shots at the rugby reunion were taken by friends who have protected their Facebook profiles with appropriate privacy settings. Any photos which were not taken by you but have been tagged with your name and placed on other, unprotected profiles can be seen by anyone who searches for your name. Privacy settings are very important (and Facebook gives you the chance to untag any photos that you don’t wish to broadcast further). Once you have set your privacy it is a good idea to regularly check your settings. Make sure that your specific settings are still valid as this will stop any problems if Facebook changes anything in the application which could potentially open up your data and photos to a wider group of connections.

If you have not spent some time setting your privacy settings correctly, think about this. In 20 years’ time, when you’re in a respectable position at work or you are thinking about becoming a councillor or a politician, remember that those Facebook photos can be accessed by anyone. Without the proper settings in place, they could come back to haunt you and your reputation.

It’s certainly worth a thought. Vodka shot, anyone?