Harnessing social media to connect directly with customers can have great benefits for your organization or brand, but with that comes potential risks. Here, industry expert Shel Holtz explains why you need a clearly defined social media policy.

Everyone has heard cringe-inducing stories of companies experiencing social media crises. But that shouldn't deter businesses from building their social media presence. With an effective social media policy, you will have the necessary rules and guidelines in place in case something goes wrong.

For more insights, we turned to Shel Holtz, who has nearly 40 years of organizational communications experience. He provides a full range of social and digital media services – including strategic planning, policy development and general consulting – to large organizations.

Holtz is a valuable resource when it comes to all things social media, including providing advice to companies as they grapple with establishing a social media policy. Here's what Holtz had to say.

Why is it important for an organization to have a social media policy?

Employees increasingly are regular users of social software; it has become so prevalent across all demographics that social media is now as common a communication tool as email (and in some cases even displacing it). Employees often list their employers in their online profiles, which can lead others to ask them questions about everything from job opportunities to the latest crisis.

Beyond ensuring employees know their obligations, a good social media policy makes it easy for employees to become effective ambassadors for the company without fear of making a mistake.

Whose responsibility is it to establish an organization's social media policy?

That varies by company. The best examples often come from cross-functional teams, which usually includes legal, human resources and communications. Regardless of who is responsible for developing the social media policy, it needs to be revisited frequently to ensure it addresses new social media channels and legal rulings. For example, many policies prohibit employees from speaking negatively about their boss, but these clauses have routinely been found illegal by administrative law judges.

Can establishing a social media policy be as easy as adapting an existing policy found online to suit your company? What are the must-haves of a social media policy?

Sure! There's no need to reinvent the process from scratch. Policies from a number of organizations ­– even hospitals – are based on IBM's Social Computing Guidelines, one of the best you can find out there. There's even a free online database of social media policies. Just be sure you use this as a starting point. The key is to adapt it to your organization's needs, not simply copy it and change the company name.

There are also online resources that can help you build or adapt a policy to guarantee you're covering all the bases.

Social media requires genuine content and, at times, instant response. How do you ensure that implementing a social media policy doesn't add roadblocks or time-consuming processes that might stifle the organic nature of it?

A well-crafted policy can actually remove roadblocks by outlining responsibilities that should prevent the problems that a burdensome review-and-approval process creates. However, a social media policy should not exist in a vacuum. Issuing a policy is hardly ever an assurance employees have actually read it. Policies should be accompanied by compulsory social media training for all employees. Research has shown the most common characteristic of companies that experience social media crises is a lack of employee training.

Can you recommend any resources to help companies learn more about social media policies and best practices?

In addition to those listed above, I recommend:

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