The Goldilocks Approach to Social Media Policy Development

Teresa Valerio Parrot (@tvparrot) is principal of TVP Communications, a boutique public relations agency focused on issues specific to higher education.

My colleague, Debra Lukehart, and I recently presented a webinar on drafting and rolling out institutional social media policies. The question-and-answer
session at the conclusion of the presentation included a query about how prescriptive a policy can be before it turns off a campus community to its intended purpose. Conversely, I recently had an email conversation with a peer who isn’t sure policies or guidelines are necessary for his campus.

These two extreme approaches have made me question my belief that a practical approach is warranted. Instead, a Goldilocks solution is best. Your policy shouldn’t be too hard or too soft—it should have a “just right” fit occuring between the two extremes.

Social media exists along the thin line between our public and personal discourse. For this reason, policies or guidelines are necessary to remind members of our communities that they serve as brand ambassadors. What they say and post can have long-term consequences for an institution and for themselves.

Make it too prescriptive, though, and you eliminate the transparency and openness that are the hallmarks of social media. Focusing solely on thou shalls and thou shall nots suggest you don’t trust your faculty, staff or students to represent your institution well.

Two campuses recently banned student-athletes from using specific words in their social media posts. The words included offensive terms, drug and alcohol-related terminology and the names of sports agents. Reactions to the bans ran the gamut of supportive to thinking the practice was silly. But, what may seem draconian could save students and coaches from posts that might tarnish their futures.

However, I’m not sure that a common sense approach to presenting information to our community wouldn’t accomplish the same goals. A bit of honey could make the “just right” porridge that much easier to swallow.

So, what does a Goldilocks approach to social media policies or guidelines prescribe overall?

  • Assume that common sense is common, but that acceptable behavior needs to be defined along the fringes of our interactions.
  • Allow your community to participate in policing of bad behavior. This reflects the original intent of social media and takes you out of the policing role.
  • Roll out your guidelines widely and pair the policy with resources and information—nobody likes limitations, but they go over much better if paired with something positive.
  • Insist on honesty and transparency, which is usually exactly what the community wants to share.

Feel free to share your experiences drafting or implementing your social media policies or guidelines below or your thoughts on the practice of banning specific words or content. After all, this is meant to be social!

3 responses to “The Goldilocks Approach to Social Media Policy Development

  1. This is a very interesting post and I share Teresa’s views on this matter. Even though organisations feel more comfortable with having full control, it is unlikely they would be able to stop people from having a say through social media. Acknowledging this and developing a policy that encourages, advises and alerts staff is more likely to have a positive impact than dictating what can or cannot be done.

  2. Unfortunately, many institutions have had to learn the hard way that a social media policy needs to be an actual Policy and be very unambiguous in order to be enforceable.
    IN this way, a policy that is ‘just right’ must comply with the law which requires specificity. Softening the language usually destroys the enforceability and may expose the institution to liabilities.

  3. Nice post. I would only add, with regard to “Social media exists along the thin line between our public and personal discourse,” that I encourage everyone to stop imagining such a line exists. The assumption should be that everything one says/does on social media is or can be public, and therefore nothing is truly personal–if by personal we mean private/not for public consumption. Increasingly, the personal is public.

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