A social media policy pearl

The best government social media guidelines so far come from New Zealand and the rare mix of a down-to-earth decision framework and plain common sense is a must-read for policymakers everywhere.

I usually tend to be quite critical with governments as they come out with social media policies and guidelines that are full of good intention but usually fail to meet the intended goal of stimulating its use by erring too much on the side of risk management and institutional presence.

Having said that, I just browsed through two documents that were published by the New Zealand government:

These documents are different, almost a breath of fresh air. They provide very down-to earth, actionable decision frameworks that give both communications professionals (i.e. those who are in the business of managing the official face of their agency on social media) and any other member of the staff, including managers, enough information to formulate their own decisions about whether and how to venture into social media.

Both guidelines do not speak to organisations, but target individuals, be they public affair officers or line managers or employees in whatever capacity. They focus on principles that are valid for any role, and stimulate a thought process that leads to determine whether and how the use of social media is worthwhile in one’s own role.

There are a few shortcomings, such as the lack of a clear upfront distinction between organisational, professional and personal roles, too long a business case template, and insufficient mention of the tactical and temporary nature of most social media engagements. But they do not detract from the overall value of these guidelines.

These are must-reads for any public sector organisation that is struggling with social media.

Here are a few highlights about each of the documents.

High-Level Guidance

In the first document, I love the passive-active-engaged approach.

Your organisation doesn’t have to jump in boots and all on the first day. You can start with a passive involvement and move through to becoming more active and finally fully engaged with the audiences you have identified.

 Passive: One of the first things your organisation can do in social media is simply to listen. What’s being said about you? […]

Active: Once you’ve listened for a while and understand the tone and concerns of a social media community, you can begin becoming more active. You can post links to information to help people answer questions they have, or you can actively correct an inaccuracy on a blog, forum or a wiki […]

Engaged: Finally, your organisation can become fully engaged. You can set up a group on a social networking site and regularly introduce content for discussion, or you can establish a Twitter profile and begin contributing and actively posting and answering questions.

This looks so reasonable and yet it is not what most guidelines say, as they try to urge organisations to establish a presence even without any clear understanding of their audience’s expectations.

When describing the “active” phase, the guidelines offer another pearl:

This sort of activity can be done in ‘other people’s houses’ – that is, in the blogs, forums and wikis that others have established.

This is what I have been telling clients for quite some time. People who feel passionate about something and have already established a forum for discussion want you to join them on their turf and to play according to their terms.

The document expands the three phases above into five activities: monitor, signpost or support, respond, discuss and debate, and suggests objectives, benefits, risks and risk management techniques for each of these activities.

There is a very clear association between the code of conduct and the use of social media.

…the Code of Conduct for your individual agency apply to staff participation online as a public servant. Staff should participate in the same way as they would with other media or public forums such as speaking at conferences…

Once more, this is so obvious and yet I have not seen many guidelines that state this in such a simple manner. The document adds some interesting perspectives, such as:

  • If you are participating in social media on behalf of your agency, disclose your position as a representative of your agency unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as a potential threat to personal security. Never give out personal details like home address and phone numbers.
  • If you’re using social media in a personal capacity, you should not identify your employer when doing so would bring your employer into disrepute. 
  • Always make sure that you are clear as to whether you are participating in an official or a personal capacity. Be aware that participating online may attract media interest in you as an individual, so proceed with care regardless of what capacity you are acting in.         

This is much welcomed common sense, treating employees like adult and responsible people, and giving them the tools they need to make their decision. And, when in doubt, “take advice from your manager or legal team”. 

Hands-on Toolbox

At first sight the document may look too prescriptive, as it looks at different types of social media (social networks, media-sharing sites, blogs, wikis and forums) and for each types looks at strengths and weaknesses. But it uses a very interesting approach to describing how to find relevant media, how to assess their relevance, how to participate in different roles (contributor, moderator, user), and how to track them. There are loads of useful nuggets that help prospective users understand how to approach social media, how to get the most out of it as well as how to understand when to pull the plug.

I found quite a few similarities between this approach (as well as the passive-active-engaged above), and the one we described in a note published back in 2008 (login required), where we introduced an approach to engagement based on six phases (seek, observe, complement, involve, assess and leverage, which make the acronym SOCIAL).

There are also good sections on reporting, records management, and measurement. These areas are still work in progress for many, and the guidelines recognise this:

Evaluating the effectiveness of a social media component in a strategy is an emerging art. For web metrics, it took time to evolve into commonly understood measures that could inform decision making. Social media is going through the same process

The guidelines suggest quantitative and qualitative measures, but do not pretend they can offer the ultimate solution. As they say in the introduction, they are not meant to be read from start to finish, but rather to be used as a reference when facing specific issues or using specific tools”.

Andrea Di Maio is a vice president and distinguished analyst in Gartner Research, where he focuses on the public sector, with particular reference to e-government strategies, Web 2.0, the business value of IT, open-source software. You can read his other posts here.