The way to authentic online employee communication and behaviour

Internal social media policies: a communication tool to prevent risks and seize opportunities



Social media help to build brands as they support the widespread diffusion of opinions and messages among customers and stakeholders. Employees take part in this process, because they can spread online messages and brand values when they are at work and when they are not working, too.

This is crucial, because stakeholders believe that employees’ online communication behaviours are more authentic than official company communications. Nevertheless, when they are online, employees can also disclose unsuitable messages – or even break the rules. Many companies have therefore produced behaviour guidelines for employees, the so-called Social Media Policy (SMP).

First of all SMP are issued to prevent risk of breaking laws, such as those on property rights; of violating ethical norms, such as those of transparency and honesty; or of damaging the company’s reputation by spreading negative messages. However, an internal SMP could also boost employees’ online communication behaviours that strengthen the brand and the dialogue with stakeholders. Used as an internal communication tool, the SMP could in fact encourage employees to seize the opportunities off ered by social media brand building.

The study by IULM University

How do high-performing companies usually approach the creation of internal SMPs? Do they only focus on preventing risks? Or do they also use them as an internal communication tool to encourage employees to seize brand building opportunities offered by social media?

At IULM University, we analysed the internal SMPs of 25 companies from the 2015 Fortune 500 ranking (all available online) and we investigated the objectives of each SMP and the methods adopted by companies to govern employees’ online behaviour.

The objectives of the SMP

All 25 of the studied SMPs aimed at preventing legal risks, 24 of them aimed at preventing ethical and reputational risks, and 13 aimed at preventing productivity and security risks. However, only 13 SMPs recognised the importance of social media in strengthening the brand and stakeholder relationships.

Of the studied SMPs, 16 asked employees to publically declare their relationship with the company for ethical or legal reasons, whereas 5 SMPs asked the same for reasons of authenticity, to ensure that online communication is perceived as authentic and genuine. This is an important point, since, in order to seize brand opportunities, employees must declare their professional identity: this increases the perceived authenticity of their online behaviour and therefore the effectiveness of the conveyed message.

Eight SMPs encourage the so-called "blurring", inviting employees to use personal social media accounts to spread professional content, whereas 17 SMPs merely recognised the possibility of this, or even discourage it. The eight companies that encourage blurring also invited all employees to act online in favour of the brand.

Governing the behaviour of online collaborators

Some companies set forth a series of measures in their SMPs, aimed at encouraging the adoption of a brand-consistent online behaviour. Among these, eight companies created an explicit link between their SMP and brand values: these are included in the document to foster sense-making and to explain why certain directions are given.

Nineteen of the SMPs included suggestions for improving the online communications skills of their employees, and 14 mentioned counselling services for the implementation of the SMP. Only three SMPs include social media training initiatives targeted at all employees.

“Many companies, even those with the best performances, are missing out on an important opportunity.”

Finally, 15 SMPs include negative consequences for employees who communicate online inappropriately, i.e. the personal legal responsibility in case an employee violates privacy statements or protection of minors. Seventeen SMPs refer instead to various forms of organisational sanctions, from suspension to dismissal. But this can be underproductive, because, if SMPs prescribe and punish, they can also provoke resistance and cynicism.

Recommendations for an effective SMP: how to adopt an enabling philosophy

The analysis shows that many companies, even those with best performances, are missing out on an important opportunity. An effective SMP should:

1) Keep the goal of preventing risks and at the same time encourage users to seize opportunities offered by social media to support the business.

2) Encourage employees to be authentic, clearly explaining that declaring their professional identity strengthens credibility, and, where possible, encourage employees to use their personal accounts to convey professional content.

3) Not prescribe behaviours, both desired and prohibited, recalling control and sanctions.

4) Support brand-consistent behaviours that are spontaneous, discretionary and convincing: in a word, adopt an "enabling" philosophy. In order to be enabling, a SMP should be part of a social media strategy, be bound to the brand's values, suggest online communication skills, be supported by education and counselling and be included in an internal communications programme.

To conclude, SMP should be exploited as part of brand building strategies, and to be effective they should be integrated in an internal branding effort, essential to enhance consistent and authentic behaviour of employees online for brand building.

Image: Thinkstock

Alessandra Mazzei

Alessandra Mazzei is associate professor of corporate communication and public relations at IULM University of Milan. She is director at the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication, coordinator of the Bachelor in Public Relations and Communication, vice director at the Department of Business LECB "Carlo A. Ricciardi", chair of the Consortium Hofstede. Her primary research interest are employee communication and relations, voice and silence in organisation, relationship management and corporate reputation management

Alfonsa Butera

Alfonsa Butera is freelance consultant in communication and public relations. At IULM University, she is adjunct professor for the Public Relations and Communication course and she is responsible for the operational coordination of the Centre for Employee Relations and Communication at the Department of Business LECB "Carlo A. Ricciardi".