Ever since social media began invading the business landscape, there’s been a conundrum over how to balance personal privacy and firm policy. How far is too far to protect the firm, its staff and clients’ interests?

Most of the larger companies like IBM and Zappos encourage their employees to participate in social media marketing and networking. In fact, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says, “You [should] put a lot of executive, managerial and staff time into figuring out how to Twitter, what to Twitter about and then keeping the tweets flowing. The same with blogs.”
That said, Hsieh also believes this is in no way a replacement for spending as much time on the phone with your clients as possible.

So while your firm will continue to connect with your clients on a regular basis through phone calls, e-mail and lunch or coffee “dates,” the concept of allowing and even encouraging staff members to participate in social media is under debate. There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to social media and understandable fear that a staff member could create a PR nightmare by releasing unauthorized information or degrading the firm on their personal Facebook page. So how does a firm harness the power of social media without infringing on staff members’ privacy?

Education is the answer. Create guidelines for participating in social media and train every staff member about the purpose of social media as it relates to your firm.

Blogger Amber Naslund prefers the term “guidelines” because it’s more about steering than control. And there’s a twist: keep it positive. Instead of focusing on what staff members can’t do, focus on what they can do and how.

The following is a list of guidelines suggested by the following experts: Amber Naslund of Radian6 and Sharlyn Lauby of Internal Talent Management, as well as a few from Intel’s Social Media Guidelines and the IBM Social Computing Guidelines. I felt that aspects of each had great merit, so I compiled a list of those I thought were the most meaningful. If you’re writing a set of guidelines for your firm, you might call these the Rules of Engagement for Social Media.

Introduce the purpose of social media
Education is crucial; the purpose of social media, according to IBM, is to “share with the world the exciting things we’re learning and doing, and to learn from others.” It’s building community and engaging with your audience (which may include colleagues, clients, prospects, community leaders, etc).

Perception is reality
In social networks, the lines between personal and professional are blurred. By identifying yourself as an employee of your firm, your tweets and blog posts may be associated with the firm. Make sure that you remain consistent with your firm’s values and professional standards.

Be responsible for what you write
You are in control; exercise good judgment and common sense. And if you are posting on behalf of your firm in a professional matter, be sure it’s within your realm of expertise; in other words, write what you know. If you quote an expert, be sure to link back to the original source when possible.

Be authentic
Always identify yourself and when appropriate, your firm and title. It’s difficult to connect and engage with someone if they don’t know who you are!

Transparency and disclosure
Always be very transparent in your communications; write in the first person and fully disclose when your communications are your own and don’t reflect the firm’s values or ideals. A basic disclaimer might read, “My name is X and I work for Y. The opinions I’m expressing here are my own and not the firm’s.”

Consider your audience
By participating in social media, you are connecting and engaging with colleagues, clients, prospects, etc. Before you publish, make sure you are not alienating any of those groups.

Understand the concept of community
“The essence of community is the idea that it exists so that you can support others and they, in turn, can support you. You need to learn how to balance personal and professional information, and the important role that transparency plays in building community. Your community shouldn’t be an environment where competition is encouraged or emphasized, but rather a platform where your [readers] feel comfortable sharing, connecting and receiving help.” -Sharlyn Lauby

Respect copyrights and fair use
If you want to post copyrighted material, make sure you give proper credit to the original author. Also be sure that you have permission to do so. Please note all the links in this article; this is me giving credit to the original authors by linking to the article where I gathered the data from or directly quoted the author.

Remember to protect confidential and proprietary information
As a staff member of a CPA firm, you have access to a significant amount of confidential information. In no way, shape or form are you to publish any of this information. “Employees who share confidential or proprietary information do so at the risk of losing their job and possibly even ending up a defendant in a civil law suit,” writes Sharlyn Lauby.

Add value
Every tweet, blog post and news feed should in some way bring value to your readers. “Provide worthwhile information and perspective; [the firm’s] brand is best represented by its people and what you publish may reflect on [your firm’s] brand.” -IBM

Content ownership
If it’s a personal blog, it’s not corporate communication and the content legally belongs to the staff member. They should be sure to disclose that separation on their blog (and the firm should ask them to do so). If it is the firm’s blog, then content posted by a staff member is owned by the firm.

Company time
It is “important to set forth your expectations about whether or not your [staff] can participate in social media during business hours…[you can’t say] ‘yes, but…’ You’re going to have to say ‘yes, and we’ll trust you to use good judgment.’” -Amber Naslund

It is also fair to assume that if your staff members are using business hours for some personal business, they are probably also using personal time (nights and weekends) working on business. Don’t jump to conclusions; if their job performance is not suffering, there probably isn’t a reason to be concerned.

Handling media requests and other official firm communications
Your firm should have a designated person (or people) responsible for handling media requests and official firm communications, and any questions or comments should be referred to them for response.

If you make a mistake, admit it immediately and go into recovery mode. Inform the appropriate people at the firm and work to correct the error. Because of the viral aspect of social media, it will probably be impossible to hide so it’s better to own up immediately and take steps to correct it. The way you respond to your mistake may mitigate the consequences of your actions, which could be anything from “a good talking to” leading up to termination, depending on the circumstances.

Or, you could just keep it simple:
“[The firm] encourages team members to be active in social media as a representative of our [firm]. Only three rules – be real, add value and don’t say anything that would embarrass your mom. If your mom has low standards, then don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of USA Today.”
-The HR Capitalist Social Media Policy – All You’ll Ever Need…

Either way you choose to go, your firm will encounter the issue of staff members using social media, whether it’s for personal or professional use. Be proactive and protect your firm and its interests. (This includes your human capital and clients, etc.) To create a policy for your firm, simply pick and choose from the guidelines above, put it in writing (edit as necessary to fit your needs), and schedule a time to begin training your entire staff (receptionist to managing partner) on these guidelines. Finally, remember that this a living document; as new technologies surface, it may be necessary to add new guidelines.

Kristin Gentry is a professional services strategic sales and marketing expert with a specialty in Social Media Marketing (www.SavvySocialMediaMarketing.com).

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