Social media guidance – how do I apply my employer’s rules?


On personalising social media guidance – and making it work for you

No Louise, you’ve not sinned.

This post expands on some thoughts on corporate social media guidance, and how to apply it in a manner that works for you. I’m approaching it from the perspective of someone who has been in politically restricted posts in the civil service, but who is now free from the shackles. That as well as one of the external contributors to the current civil service guidance on social media.

So: What are the rules?

The civil service has its rules here. But your organisation may be different. Some may be extremely detailed and in depth – such as the BBC guidance, while others might be much more light touch. It will depend on your organisation and where you work within it. If your organisation does not have guidance, it might be worth asking your employer whether you should have some – even offer to draft it if your employer doesn’t know the first thing about social media. Should you choose to do so, make use of your friends and contacts on social media – ask them what should and should not be in it.

“Don’t do this, don’t to that”

It’s understandable why the boards of large organisations are tempted to frame social media guidance in terms of risks. As far as corporations’ histories are concerned, social media is a very new, large phenomenon that requires a nimbleness that typically large organisations do not have. Trying to change an institution’s culture in a very short space of time is a very difficult and painful process. How do you do this when the change is forced upon you by an external shock? Some organisations have used digital media to help get messages across – such as this superb one from The State of Victoria’s Department for Justice in Australia.

The problem with the “Don’t do this, don’t do that” approach is that it can begin to feel a bit like school. One of the things a number of people asked me at some recent training sessions I delivered is how to get the best out of social media.

What sort of persona do you want people to see you as?

For me, I wasn’t quite sure at first. However, my early followers decided that the persona would be a baby dragon fairy. But given how quickly social media use is evolving, chances you’re better off being open with who you are (unless you REALLY want to run an account in the form of a fictional mythical creature or the like) than trying to hide behind an avatar/anonymous account. Unless you’ve taken the decision to drive a horse and cart through your employer’s rules on social media, in which case I can’t be held responsible. And neither can Puffles.

Persona matters – and not just in terms of staying out of trouble. It matters because it’s one of the things that people look at when deciding whether to follow and engage with you. The key word in the term ‘social media’ is in the word ‘social’ – it implies a conversation. How are you going to converse over social media? Will you treat it as a normal face-to-face conversation or will you be much more cautious, restricting yourself to a series of ‘approved phrases and responses’? To what extent do you want your social media account to reflect how you are in real life? By this I’m looking in the context of someone who is normally shy in the company of other people, but online feel that they are much more able to open up. I’m not talking about those who might seem perfectly personable in real life but are incredibly anti-social and threatening online.

Some people are much more outgoing online than they are in real life. For whatever reason, they may find it much easier to communicate using social and digital media than they do face-to-face. That’s fine.

Be nice and people are likely to be nice back to you

You get what you give. Actually, this is a very important point. It’s one of the things that has made social media work for me. I’m not good with aggression so do all that I can to filter it out of my social media exchanges. Or perhaps more importantly, I prefer to filter into my world the people who I can have interesting conversations with.

If you have the name of your employer in your social media profile, chances are you will stumble across someone who has a bone to pick with said employer, and you happen to be the first person they’ve found. How do you deal with it? ‘Consistently’ for a start. Why? Because in doing it helps form positive habits – something that later on others will become familiar with. For example, many of my followers are now familiar with the convention on Twitter that retweets are ‘for information only’. Anyone who tries to claim otherwise will be swiftly pointed by Puffles to House Rule number 3. In the case of the Civil Service Social Media Guidance, tips 9 and 10 on page four are well worth bearing in mind.

“House rules?”

With large organisations, there is only so much detail they can, or want to go into. I’ve never been a fan of micromanagement. Trying to cover your organisation for every eventual possibility is more effort than its worth. Also, if you treat your staff like children, don’t be surprised if they behave like children.

I built up Puffles’ Original House Rules when I was still in the civil service. The first house rule for me is one that should apply to all civil servants. It’s the house rule that says you cannot comment on any serving politician, MP, minister or holder of elected public office.

Personalised house rules are useful because they allow you to manage expectations of those that choose to engage with you. You can also make them specific to the sort of work you do in your organisation. For example, a civil servant in a policy team will be facing a different set of demands say compared to a civil servant working in a crown court, tax office or in a job centre. A policy official may want something about commenting on their policy area. A tax official may want something about telling people not to post their personal information/ ask questions about their personal cases. That sort of thing. It sounds like really basic stuff, but covering the basics (and regularly referring to them) soon sets the context of how you use social media.

“Does being on social media while working for a large organisation mean not having an opinion?”

Being a human being inevitably involves having an opinion. Working for a large organisation – or being in employment generally involves exercising judgement. The question is which things is it appropriate to express opinions on via a social media platform without bringing your employer into disrepute. It’s a fine line. Conversations can quickly evolve into something where you’ve crossed that line. For example that exchange about for example how women are portrayed in the media can quickly move into the lack of female representation in Cabinet through to criticism of government policies or individual ministers. By writing your own house rules, those lines become more clear and sharper. That way you can pull yourself up before you cross the line.

“What about live tweeting from events?”

This is what Louise Kidney’s original post originally referred to. She, as with several other civil servants were live-tweeting from the City Data #Teacamp gathering that I blogged about here. The nature of these events inevitably involve scoping out a problem or a challenge, before trying to work out how to respond to it.

NEWZ-SPOOF: “Government has problem with flagship policy, concedes top civil servant!”

At least I didn’t get stung that way in social media world.

Actually, this is where your house rules can set the context of the events that you are tweeting or live-blogging from. One of the ways of bringing to life events that you are at is taking pictures with your smart phone and posting them up online. It might, for example be a nice segway to introducing someone. But out of context…

You pay for top civil servant to take photos of Magic Dragon Puffles!
You pay for top civil servant to take photos of magic dragon fairies!!!

…the photograph on the left could easily be construed as not the best way of making use of civil service time. (By someone who knows nothing about social media in particular. Because EVERYONE knows about Puffles…don’t they?!?)

…Which illustrates another point. Not everyone will be as familiar with digital and social media as you might be.

It’s one of the reasons why during my final six months in the civil service, I made it my business to tip off two then-board members of my department that I was the person looking after Puffles the dragon fairy on Twitter, and that I had taken reasonable precautions at a time when the top of the civil service was still quite nervous about social media use.

By writing and using your own personalised house rules shows that you are being proactive about using social media as well as being responsible about it. It’s not a sure-fire way of eliminating risk. Nothing is. But it makes clear to those you engage with how you want to use social media. Perhaps more importantly too, it shows to others that might be less confident with social media that your social media community is a safer space too. And that’s no bad thing.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s