Last week we issued our blogging policy at EarthLink, where I work. It reflects a collaboration of several individuals and was approved by our management team. It also incorporates publicly available best practices of other companies.
I feel that this policy represents a recognition of social media’s growing presence and an important step in extending its reach.
We are taking a gradualist approach as we experiment with blogs, vlogs and podcasts and launch web 2.0 products like WebLife, a service that lets you store, organize, edit and share your digital photos, media and data files online, and myEarthLink Reader, an RSS aggregator.
Along the way, we have made a few adjustments – relaunching our blog with a broader mission and single author and adjusting our advertising on podcasts to take into account listener feedback.
For me, a blogging policy should reiterate the existing guidelines governing the disclosure of confidential and sensitive information by employees; provide clear guidelines for those employees who choose, without specific company permission, to reference their company when commenting on a personal blog or podcast or any other online forum; and protect the company from any legal, financial or HR issues that may arise when employees discuss their company in an online forums.
In formulating a blogging policy it is important to consider how specific the policy should be, whether it should encourage blogging or remain neutral and what the definition of harm is, as in directing employees to do no harm.
Neutrality vs. Encouragement: A policy is a translation of a company’s tolerance for unpredictability and honesty. Some companies actively encourage blogging and online commentary and others merely tolerate it. The issue is both a legal and communication concern. If you encourage blogging, then you limit the ability to minimize liability for those that abuse their blogging privileges. But remain too neutral or worse, ambivalent, and you discourage blogging and undermine its efficacy.
General vs. Specific: Closely related to the issue of neutrality is how general or specific a policy should be. I suspect financial and security companies have heavy restrictions if they allow blogging at all, while others have precious few. Make the policy too restrictive and you limit potential liability but you stifle creativity and participation.
Do No harm: Are you prepared for an employee at your company to write on a blog that your company “sucks.” Are you prepared for a more thoughful but candid assessment by an employee? A policy should give your employees the freedom to express themselves, but parameters of what they can say and how they can say it. It should also give employers guidelines for employees who cross the line. Employees are after all employees. Everything does not go. Blogging is not permission for an employee to say anything he or she wants – even if that employee thinks it’s in the company’s best interest.
Our policy is a recognition that blogging is an important communications tool. Our goal is to give employees the guidelines for engaging without being blogging’s advocate – just like we don’t “encourage” press releases, annual reports and direct mail.
Our guidelines cover all the legal and disclosure requirements as well rules of engagement that are consistent with our employee code of conduct.
In the end, blogging policies are starting points. Actual mileage may vary. (I went car shopping this past weekend.) Blogging, like social media itself, is evolving and no policy can cover all contingencies. As such, it is up to corporate communications and management to regularly educate the rest of company to show how a policy and actual blogging can coexist.
Rather than a set of restrictions, a blogging policy should be seen as a tool to give employees an outline for engagement and a guide for initiating conversations.
Let me get back to you.
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