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Social media policies are slowly catching up

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Though risk mitigation is still a prevalent theme in recent policies, companies also tend to recognise the positive aspects of social media, such as its ability to foster transparency and build positive relationships with customers or partners.

Social media present challenges for businesses, but also phenomenal new opportunities. So far, however, businesses have tended to focus on the potential downsides of social media, and their related policies often have concentrated on risk mitigation.

This appears to be changing, however, according to the findings of a study by Emmanuelle Vaast of McGill University in Montreal and Evgeny Kaganer of the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa at the University of Navarra in Spain, a study published recently in The J ournal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

As social media have become more ubiquitous, companies have started to perceive their benefits, and this has been reflected in subtle changes in their policies.

The authors studied how companies perceive and respond to their employees’ use of social media. They examined 74 corporate-policy documents concerning the use of public social-media sites, analysing the documents using the theory of “affordances” — the idea that, when people perceive an object, they see it in terms of its “opportunities for action” — put simply, what it can be used for.

Four main affordances

How, then, do companies think that social media can be used?

Prior research has identified four main “affordances” of social media: 1) Visibility, meaning that behaviour, knowledge, preferences and connections that once were invisible become visible, 2) persistence, meaning that, once created, content exists for an indefinite period of time, 3) editability, meaning that people can collaboratively amend, add to, revise and change content published on the Internet, and 4) association, referring to social ties, either between people or between people and the content they create.

While manifestations of all four affordances were present in the social-media policies analysed, companies tended to concentrate on certain affordances more than others.

Visibility and persistence dominated the policies. The idea that people who were not your intended audience might read what you post, and that content you create will continue to exist for an open-ended period of time, were of particular concern. The policies tended to regard these as potential risks, focusing on the possibility of reputational damage.

Editability was muted. Where social media’s editability was acknowledged, it was seen primarily as “editability by others.” There was an interesting relationship between visibility and persistence, on the one hand, and editability, on the other, in that the former seemed to overshadow and, to some extent, displace the latter. This was exemplified by the fact that “What not to post” was a far more common theme than “What to post.”

Association also was interpreted through the lens of risk. The focus was on associations between employees and the company, with employees often being warned to use disclaimers clarifying that their views were personal, and not those of the company. The policies tended to ignore the potential for employees to use social media to collaborate or interact.

In general there were three overarching themes in companies’ attempts to shape employees’ use of social media.

First, many borrowed from existing policies that had been developed in other contexts, such as general communications and human-resources guidelines. These borrowings sometimes were complex and lacked relevance, which undermined their effectiveness.

Second, some attempted to produce new policies tailored for social media that acknowledged special features such as the blurring of work and off-hours roles, as well as providing advice on “what to post” and “what not to post.” These, however, often remained underdeveloped and lacked specifics.

A third theme was the attempt to hedge against or reduce social-media risks that the company was unable to anticipate. Often this meant telling employees to check with someone in authority if they were unsure about their social-media behaviour. However, the issue of whether or how those in authority were qualified for the task rarely was addressed.

What all this implied was that the social-media environment was a new and changing one, and could not adequately be governed by existing policies created for other purposes. To cope with this, companies attempted to develop new governance mechanisms and establish some means to deal with problems on a case-by-case basis.

Social-media policies are changing, however, as evidenced by the fact that more recent examples referred to dedicated social-media departments or teams, which suggests a professionalisation of companies’ relationship with social media. Also, while risk mitigation still was a prevalent theme in recent policies, they also tended to recognise the positive aspects of social media, such as their ability to foster transparency and build positive relationships with customers or partners. Worries about the blurring of the personal/professional boundary seemed to have slightly decreased, while the theme of “fostering community” had increased.

In short, it seems that companies are cautiously starting to see the positives of social media.

© The New York Times 2013

From IESE Insight

© 2013 Instituto de Estudios Superiores de la Empresa, IESE Universidad de Navarra

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