These days it seems that just about everyone and everything has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and/or blog. Employees that have responsibility for updating or managing the official Starbucks or Walmart Facebook sites or Twitter feeds have probably been carefully instructed on what can and can’t be posted, and readers of the content from these sources are fully aware (or should be!) that they’re consuming information that is controlled, or at least monitored and approved, by Corporate HQ policy.

But what about the policies related to grey areas, like employees that are required to blog or socially network as part of their job? Or independent bloggers and Tweeters that have been given products to review?  And how far should corporate policies extend to cover personal blogging and social networking? These are fairly complicated questions, but companies that consider the issues in advance and create clear policies for their employees can save themselves and their employees a lot of headaches.

When social networking is part of the job


As companies realized the power of social networking, many of them established Facebook presences, blogs, and Twitter accounts to act as alternative advertising and communication methods. If your target customer isn’t watching TV or reading print or online advertising banners, but is an avid consumer of Facebook status updates, it stands to reason that companies would find ways to place their marketing messages there as part of their corporate communications program.

However, some companies have identified other ways to increase the communications signal. Some employees are asked to register with online forums and social communities to monitor and engage in ongoing discussions related to a product or service. Consider a VoIP provider that wants to know what people are saying about its service. An employee may be asked to watch a few targeted social networking communities and blog comment areas and actively promote the VoIP provider’s offering over other offerings.

While it makes sense that a company may engage in this kind of activity to proactively correct misinformation, this practice can cross the line if paid employees are not identifying themselves appropriately. Perhaps one of the more famous instances of this is when the FTC filed a lawsuit against Whole Foods and part of the suit alleged that Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey had been posting negative comments, anonymously, about their competitor Wild Oats.

Another grey area is when independent bloggers review products or services that have been provided for free or when they are being paid to write favorable reviews. It’s not a given that providing a tech writer with an early release iPad will result in a positive write-up. But it is something that readers should be aware of.

The practice of unacknowledged paid endorsements and anonymous employee promotion was becoming enough of a concern that, late last year, the FTC issued “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising” that explicitly requires online posters to reveal if they work for the company they are writing about. The guidelines also require posters to acknowledge if the product or company they are discussing had provided the product for free or paid the writer for the review.

The question of free speech

Looking at this issue from another angle, the question of privacy comes into play. Is it all right for an elementary school teacher to post pictures of herself having fun off hours at a bar on a personal site or social networking community? Can an employee share their impressions of day-to-day life at a company without losing her job? Consider Heather Armstrong (the editor and founder of Dooce and Daily Chuck) who was fired from her lucrative job as a Web site designer for posting about her job experience without actually calling out her employer by name. Some of her comments were negative and her bosses didn’t like what she was posting – and she did lose that job. Ashley Payne claims that she lost her teaching job because she visited the Guinness Brewery in Ireland and posted pictures of her visit to her Facebook profile.

This raises the question of how far a company or organization wants to go when it comes to limiting free speech and monitoring what an employee does off-hours. And does the organization feel entitled to fire someone for sharing their impressions and activities online? While we’re allowed to write and say what we feel, there’s no guarantee that our employer will condone expression. And, as employees, what is our responsibility to the company/organization v. our right to express ourselves?

The answer is policy

While the FTC guidelines are explicit about transparency, there are still a lot of questions that many employees have about what is, and is not, acceptable in order for them to keep their jobs and meet their social networking MBOs (management by objective). Taking Constitutional Law out of the mix, because this is not a legal advice site, let’s focus on the company or organizational policy.

When an employee enters the organization they need to understand the rules. And when they are being asked to write or post or engage in social networking sites, they also need to understand the rules. Below we’ve set out a skeleton set of rules that organizations should consider implementing to ensure that both the organization and the employee understand how to engage online. These rules cover both the FTC guidelines and the issues of personal posting.

Acceptable use policy for social networking

In this section we lay out some of the most important points to consider when defining an acceptable use policy (AUP) for employees. Please take a look at this baseline of questions and policy points, take into account your unique organizational needs, edit and amend as necessary to make the policy fit for your situation.

1.    On-hours social networking

Is social networking sanctioned by the company? Are there restrictions about which venues and outlets are approved? For example is YouTube video posting and commenting approved but MySpace activity is not? Be specific.

2.    Using social networking for corporate purposes

If employees are asked to engage in social networking, what is the corporate goal and how can the employee meet their management by objective (MBO) goal? If the company is most concerned about having misinformation corrected - be clear with employees that this is their remit when interacting online. If the company wants to have positive reviews posted about the product or service, be clear with employees about it.

3.    Paid or promotional endorsements

The FTC requires that bloggers, review posters on large retail sites, such as Amazon, Facebook fans, and all other online reviewers and commenters, disclose if they are writing about a product or service they received for free or if they were paid for the review or post.

4.    Transparency

Those FTC rules are not suggestions. Any employee that posts about the company, products, services, or about competitors must state who they work for. Distill out the key points from the FTC rules and highlight them prominently in the Social Networking AUP.

Make sure employees have acknowledged (by signature or e-signature) that they have read the policy and understand it.

5.    Off hours social networking

The issue of whether or not it’s legally acceptable to monitor off-hours posting and fire an employee for it is one that the courts will need to decide. However, your organization should identify whether or not off-hours posts will be monitored and if there are any specific rules related to posting personal information or activities that are not related to the company. Keep in mind that the rules about corporate transparency are still in effect off-hours.

Social networking and commentary and reviews of retail sites are quickly establishing themselves as critical marketing and advertising channels. It makes no sense for organizations to ignore these channels completely, but use them wisely; failure to acknowledge who you work for or if you’ve been paid to promote a product or service is unethical and in violation of FTC rules. Think through the policy points and create clear AUPs so employees know what is and is not appropriate use. Once the rules are understood, employees can use social networking and companies can benefit from awareness in these new channels without violating any government or ethical boundaries.

Diana Kelley is a partner at SecurityCurve and frequent contributor to eSecurityPlanet.com.