Lessons on building a brand with social media

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Companies that take a fearful approach to social media need to step up and show some guts and encourage employees to share, writes an HR consultant.

We all know the risks associated with technology and, more specifically, social media in the workplace.

Photos of CEOs in compromising situations. Videos posted to Facebooks of employees in company attire behaving badly. Bomb threats linked with executives inadvertently sharing confidential travel details on Twitter. I've also seen cases-more than you might think-of workplaces becoming casualties of bad breakups, a disgruntled half of a couple circulating inappropriate content among co-workers, typically through a smartphone contact list.

So how do you ensure that all social media content related to your company or product is on-brand?

Even if the situations aren't quite this severe as those mentioned above, many business owners aren't willing to give up total control of the message social media conveys about their company.

But social media is not going away. It has entered the workplace in a major way and has real business implications both for the company's reputation and finances. Leveraging your staff to tweet, post on Facebook or add photos of your products or workplace to Instagram can be one of the most effective ways to expend your marketing budget and engage with your customers. But most organizations don't do it, because they are afraid of the potential consequences.

This brave new world of social media and perpetual over-sharing can become either a real challenge for organizations or an untapped opportunity for a brand's presence to grow. When I look at the businesses that best leverage their staff to help grow their brand online while also mitigating social media risk, I find that each of these star players follow four important practices:

Social media has been shown to have a positive correlation to employee satisfaction; however, most organizations continue to tighten social media restrictions. Research shows almost half of all workplaces have implemented social media restrictions as a risk mitigation effort. The reality is that we are all at war for the best talent. Don't let your best prospective employees walk across the street so they can have the ability to watch YouTube, check Facebook or post company-tagged tweets. In case you are worried that I am being hyperbolic, research shows that almost half of millennials say social media restrictions impact their decision to work with an organization.

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One of my favorite examples of a company that truly gets how much its employees enjoy participating in its digital presence is Southwest Airlines . Their "Nuts about Southwest" blog is entirely employee-sourced, and they seem to have strong employee participation across digital channels. Not only is this great advertising, but this kind of social media sharing can also serve to reinforce the mission and sense of community for large, geographically disparate organizations, like an airline.

Smart employers are embracing the opportunity to access a wider audience at a lower relative cost instead of viewing technology as a disruptive, nonproductive time-suck. Canny marketing managers at these companies create programs, incentives and cohesive key messages for employees to share on their personal and corporate social media pages.

Again, Southwest Airlines is a good example. The airline employs only five people in its corporate social media department but has been cited as a best example in the corporate sector for encouraging employees to participate across digital channels. As many as 30 bloggers regularly contribute to its "Nuts about Southwest" blog, while additional employee "guest" bloggers chime in with unique and original content.

These maverick companies clearly lay out what is acceptable company-related content to be publicly shared and what is off limits. KPMG has developed YouTube videos, and many top employers are now offering social media classes that help employees understand appropriate messages for each medium, with additional training on how to control private and public interfaces.

"How to" practices are just as important as making clear the repercussions of inappropriate company-related social media behavior. Clearly explain to employees the legal consequences of their actions if they use technology to either view or distribute objectionable, illicit or offensive material on work devices or company accounts.

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If you are looking for an example of a company that has done this well, check out IBM's blogging guidelines released to its employees. The manifesto is well put together: It clearly states the goals of IBM-related blogging, such as key messages to share, while also making the guidelines crystal clear. Cisco has taken a similar approach, publishing its social media guidelines on its website for all employees to access and read so there is no question about what is okay to share.

Technology is moving much faster than legislation, which pushes organizations to the forefront of managing what is appropriate or inappropriate to be shared. This is turning traditional policies upside down. Instead of executives or managers signing off on every piece of content that is posted to corporate social media channels (or that is tagged with the company's name), sometimes it is left to employees to use their best judgment about what should be shared and how.

In this new world of digital content sharing, the best organizations operate by embracing unknowns and balancing risk mitigation with business development and employee engagement. Part of the key to being successful, as mentioned above, is having clear guidelines about what to post and clear procedures to follow when inappropriate content has been posted. If you don't have enough human eyes to manually monitor every piece of content posted, software services like Hearsay Social provide automated solutions to protect your brand and legal compliance.

Here are the steps you can take tomorrow to ensure that your own organization is making the best use of employees' participation in the company's social media presence:

  • Model your program after organizations that have done this well (MasterCard is another good example, in addition to the companies cited above) instead of reinventing the wheel.
  • Get leaders in your organization to lead by example with appropriate messages.
  • Ensure social media policies are clear so that employees understand what will and will not be tolerated.
  • Teach your staff to use their best judgment when creating and sharing content. Better yet, when it comes to corporate content, give them specific messages to share.
  • Let your employees have some creative license about how they wish to share the message (remember, if they are posting on their own personal accounts, they will want some freedom in shaping the content). To make sure that no lines are crossed, a good rule of thumb is that if your employees don't want their boss, future employers or family members to see the content they would like to post, then don't post it.
  • When employees do cross the line, act quickly and decisively.
  • Encourage and remind employees to test their privacy settings frequently.

-By Debby Carreau, CEO and founder of Inspired HR and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

About YPO

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