What’s in your firm’s social media policy?

Social media is one of the most powerful and easy ways to market your firm, and it is the rare accounting firm that doesn’t have some sort of social media presence. But with great power comes great responsibility, and it is time for firms to either create, or update, their social media policies.

We all like to think that everyone who works for our firms is knowledgeable about what is, and is not, appropriate to share publicly. We also want to believe they are polite and thoughtful and would never say something threatening, disparaging or careless. But as one sad — and sometimes devastating — story after another proves, this isn’t always the case.

Having a carefully designed social media policy in place isn’t only a matter of establishing standards for politeness; it’s necessary if you wish to legally protect your firm and its actions. But simply having a policy isn’t enough to ensure that you are protected; you need to get employees’ signatures as proof that they have read it thoroughly, train every person at your firm on it, and update both the policy and training as new issues arise or new platforms are incorporated into your marketing strategy.

Social media is a powerful tool for firm marketing and communications on all levels and can be effective and even fun. It also provides copious opportunities for making very public faux pas — or much worse — that can do your firm a world of harm. A true social media policy goes much further than requesting good manners and protects your firm by providing the guidance employees need.

In many cases, the best approach is to bring in an outside expert to not only help craft the policy so it fits your specific firm and its culture, but to also do the training so employees can feel comfortable directing questions at a neutral party. However, you decide to address it, don’t wait until an issue arises. Now is the time to take a hard look at social media situation and make sure your firm, its leaders and its reputation are protected.

As you think about creating your own policy, be sure that it covers the following areas at a minimum.

Strategy and explanation
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Talk briefly about why your firm is on social media and the platforms you are using as part of this plan.
Chain of command
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Identify who is ultimately in charge of your social media presence, how employees can share information for posting consideration and who will be participating in the process. Define the responsibilities of each role and include information on how adverse issues should be addressed.
What to say and what NOT to say
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What may seem like common sense to you may not be for everyone, so clearly define what can and can’t be said on social media.

Is it ever appropriate to mention clients on your pages? Are funny posts off limits or welcome fodder? Your firm’s personality may dictate some of what is allowed, but never assume that everyone at your firm feels the same way about content as you do.
The Internet never forgets
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Everything you say online, even on private pages and after deletion, can be found. Period. Facebook stores every post ever made. The Library of Congress is cataloging tweets. Stress the importance of thinking twice before making a comment or sharing questionable information; it can come back to bite you.
Follow the rules about sharing
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Social media is all about sharing content, but there are right and wrong ways to do it. Proper attribution is important when sharing information created by others. You wouldn’t want others stealing from you, so make sure that no one at your firm steals from others. You also need to check the source of the post and ensure that it is accurate. If there are particular sites or types of posts that you don’t allow, clearly define that in your policy and training.
Business versus personal use
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Here’s where things get a little hairy. Do you know when social media speech is personal, and thus protected by the First Amendment, and when it is considered a company statement? At what point and under what circumstances does social media speech become an offense for which you can fire an employee? Do your employees know where this line is drawn?

It’s critical to look into all the angles and cover as many scenarios as you can possibly imagine so if something improper or offensive is posted you can address it immediately. You don’t want to find your firm in an embarrassing situation that can permanently impact your standing in the community or on the wrong side of a lawsuit because you were more aggressive than you had the legal right to be.