The point of social media policy: Empowerment over entrapment

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

Louise Watson-Dowell, Digital Account Director at Definition, argues that social media policies for employees should never aim to serve the purposes of the brand alone, but rather acknowledge employees' individuality and celebrate this as an asset.

In the wake of the BBC's much-publicised rules around impartiality and social media, Louise says that it's next to impossible in this day and age to be an active social media user and remain impartial, avoiding offending anyone at all, at any time - and nor should it be.


Last year (bear with me - I know we’d all like to consign 2020 to the history books but this piece is in no way, shape or form about the C-word) the BBC announced changes to its social media policy. On the brink of the UK’s second national lockdown, at the end of October, the media conglomerate told its employees they must not “express a personal opinion on matters of public policy, politics, or controversial subjects”. 

The full policy, titled Guidance note - Individual Use of Social Media, goes further, advising staff and presenters that their personal “brand” is secondary to their responsibility to the corporation, that they should also avoid “virtue signalling”, and hold back from supporting campaigns “no matter how apparently worthy the cause or how much their message appears to be accepted or uncontroversial”.

Of course, the BBC was founded on the precedent that it would be a fair and impartial reporter. While there are obvious conflicts of interest if a BBC employee were to promote a brand on a show produced by the organisation or for financial gain on their personal social channels, how exactly is one supposed to go about life never being in some way party to anything deemed controversial online?

Analysing the “controversial” 

In June 2020, Clara Amfo broke down in tears on air after George Floyd’s death, having missed the previous day’s show because the news affected her deeply. We all know that what followed Floyd's death, spurred on and supported by many, was a movement of education and inspiration that is still continuing online today, and making waves in physical spaces.

The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was torn down, relinquished to a museum rather than lording over The Centre. Netflix and iPlayer removed legacy programming like 'The League of Gentlemen' and 'Little Britain'. I saw a Black Lives Matter placard in the window of a house on my lunchtime walk today. 

The Black Lives Matter movement is political. In some spheres, perhaps controversial. It gained momentum online and across social media before its physical manifestation in the UK. Should Clara have refrained from speaking about it? Of course not. That would have confirmed her feelings - many peoples’ feelings - that “people want our culture, but they do not want us. You want my talent, but you don’t want me.”

With this example in mind, then - albeit an extreme one - is it possible to be an active social media user and remain impartial, avoiding offending anyone at all, at all times? I don’t think so. And perhaps you shouldn’t try to. 

Tim Davie: staff "should be mindful of ensuring that they do not get inolved in matters which could be deemed political or controversial"

Employees as a brand asset 

Employees can be a brand’s biggest asset. We’ve all thought a lot about work/life balance over the past year or so, but the two entities don’t have to become completely separate. Employees have the potential to be great ambassadors for a brand, that exist both in the physical world and online.

A social media policy for employees should not seek to serve the purposes of the brand alone, but rather acknowledge their individuality and celebrate this as an asset, acting as one pillar of a supportive culture that recognises people as just that: people, with different trains of thought, diverse experiences, and a myriad of ideas.

When done well, a social media policy that enables, rather than disables, a team just adds to the magic of a business or organisation, whether consumer or corporate, grassroots or established.

I’ve worked across a variety of industries training people on how to use social media to best effect, and putting workable social media policies in place. By empowering colleagues in this way, giving them the tools, the confidence and the knowledge to harness the power of social media, businesses build on their culture and their bottom line. Basic ground rules are important but, on the whole, you have to let people be themselves. 

See this guidance from GAP USA, which doesn’t tell employees what they are absolutely not allowed to do, but makes it clear what’s expected: 

  • “Some subjects can invite a flame war. Be careful discussing things where emotions run high (e.g. politics and religion) and show respect for others’ opinions.
  • Your job comes first. Unless you are an authorized Social Media Manager, don’t let social media affect your job performance.
  • If you #!%# up? Correct it immediately and be clear about what you’ve done to fix it. Contact the social media team if it’s a real doozy.
  • Don’t even think about it… Talking about financial information, sales trends, strategies, forecasts, legal issues, future promotional activities. Giving out personal information about customers or employees. Posting confidential or non-public information. Responding to an offensive or negative post by a customer. There’s no winner in that game.”

I think Intel put it succinctly here:

“What do our policies mean? They mean that we trust you. We bring smart people into the Intel family and we expect you to make smart decisions. This means that you are both the person in the best position to tell the world why Intel is such an amazing place to be and the person best suited to protect Intel from harm.”

Every business I have worked with that has encouraged employees to do more on social media - even the really nervous ones with sensitivities aplenty to consider - has seen a significant benefit across its teams and its communications. Giving people guidance coupled with autonomy yields the best results.

The BBC’s need to deliver impartial, unbiased reporting is no doubt difficult in the face of always-on culture, but some of its biggest assets - its presenters - are just so because of their personalities, foibles and, yes, on social media, their views. And as the old social media catch-all bio line goes “all views my own”.