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Why You Need a Social Media Policy Three reasons small businesses benefit from even the most basic guidelines.

By Mark Henricks

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When Avvo Corp. hired a slew of new advertising sales people in 2009, many of the new employees were enthusiastic, young and savvy about social media. Naturally, they began blogging, tweeting and posting to Facebook about their new employer.

At first, it all seemed good. "You like to see a lot of initiative in a startup," says Josh King, vice president of business development and general counsel for the three-year-old Seattle-based online directory of lawyers and physicians. But as he was checking Twitter mentions of Avvo, using a free online tool called TweetDeck, he found a number of employees actively talking about the company had less-than-professional profile photos.

"There was one where someone had drinks in their hand, for example, and beer bottles around," King says. Since he realized it was probably neither wise nor feasible to ban employees from using social media or mentioning the company name when doing so, he began crafting a social-media policy to guide the company's 50 employees.

Offensive behavior and image issues are among the most common problems that surface when employees mix business with personal use of social-networking sites, according to Andrew Tanick, an attorney with employment law firm Ford & Harrison in Minneapolis. "People put things on their Facebook page that they wouldn't normally put in writing," he says.

To avoid such snafus in your company, consider crafting your own social media policy. Here are three ways your business can benefit from establishing even the most basic guidelines.

Reason No. 1: Protect your company's reputation

A social media policy takes the guesswork out of what is appropriate for employees to post about your company to their social networks. As a general rule, they shouldn't write anything they wouldn't want plastered on the front page of their local newspaper, says Chris Boudreaux, a senior vice president at New York-based social-media consulting firm Converseon.

King's approach was to craft a one-page policy that emphasizes professionalism above all else. "In many respects it's like you're at a party talking about your company," he says. "You're not going to get up on a table with a lampshade on your head."

His social-media guidelines, which were sent out by email and included in the employee handbook, remind the company's social-media enthusiasts that "context matters." It also provides specific advice on things like acceptable profile photos and how to respond if a journalist contacts his employees through their personal networks.

Reason No. 2: Minimize confusion about murky legal issues.

Social media policies can also help entrepreneurs and managers avoid errors, Boudreaux says. For instance, he cites the case of a New Jersey restaurant tripped up when a manager fired an employee after reading complaints about the company on a private social media page he had secretly gained access to. Among other allegations, the company faced charges that it violated federal wiretapping laws.

"These [incidents] can involve very serious crimes," says Boudreaux, who also established the Socialmediagovernance.com, a resource for entrepreneurs looking for social-media guidance. The site provides a free, searchable database of more than 150 social-media policies used by other businesses and organizations.

Reason No. 3: Raise awareness of your brand.

A social media policy can do more than avert problems. "Too often organizations think about social media policies as a list of restrictions," Boudreaux says. But having clear guidelines can also help employees understand ways they can use social media to help achieve business goals. For instance, policies should advise employees how they can comment on blogs or social networks to boost brand awareness and drive traffic to the company's site.

As for King, when employees mention Avvo on their social networks, it's now coordinated through the company's marketing department. While employees aren't required to clear every Twitter post in advance, for example, they are expected to speak with company executives before starting any new social-media page specifically related to Avvo.

"We had a few people change their profile photos and there hasn't been a single issue in the six to eight months we've had it in place," he adds.

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