Social Media Rules of the Road: Policy vs. Guideline

Alan Belniakbusiness, guidelines, Social Media5 Comments

sample clowchart - is this like your company's social media policy or guideline?

Policy?  Guideline?

You can look at the definitions of each here: policy and guideline.

Aside from dictionary definitions, I think the common use of these tends to be something along the lines of the following:

  • Policy –rigid, authoritative, unwavering, push, “set in stone”
  • Guideline – didactic, fungible, suggestive, framework, nudge, pull

I hope with those synonyms, you can see where I’m going.  I suspect that your experiences are similar (let me know in the comments if they are not).  When it comes to the workforce, though, I think these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and sometimes still to a detrimental effect.  Here’s an example.

A while back, executives at my company were drafting up some social media conduct “rules” (I’m purposely not using either word here, since that’s the core of the debate).  Revisions were sent back and forth among marketing, legal, and a few other groups.  One of the recurring comments I had on this was that it expressly not be called a ‘policy’ but rather a ‘guideline’.  The difference to some may be semantics, and maybe not a big deal.  But to me, and to the very ethos of what these “rules” are conveying, the difference in meaning was (and is!) indeed a very big deal.

It’s All About Semantics

These rules described some manners and methods that employees should bear in mind when interacting online when explicitly or implicitly representing the company.  My core position was that if they are called “policies”, then they appear too rigid, formal, and creates an atmosphere of retribution, should something go wrong.  Alternatively, if they are called “guidelines”, it lends a bit of a lighter, freer tone to the document, and encourages participation.

I created a talking slide show of a summary of this document so it could be consumed in a different way.  One of the audio lines I used was something to the effect of, “We want you to interact online.  So, go and converse about our company – blog and tweet and post and share.  When doing so, though, just keep a few things in mind so that those experiences are as positive and productive as possible, and that we uphold the best image that we can reasonably expect.”

This “policy” vs. “guideline” difference in title might be missed by many, but it is important to me.  I’d like those at my company to feel encouraged to participate online (in whatever ways they like), versus feeling tentative.

What about you?  Does your company have a policy?  Or a guideline?  Or neither?

Bonus: If you’re looking to create one, don’t start from scratch.  Use an existing one, and modify as you see fit.  See more than 125 publicly available social media policies and guidelines here:

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