Social media mishaps happen all the time. Who hasn't said something on a personal blog or Twitter, or on their Facebook status updates that they haven't regretted later? But, when it comes to a company's reputation, what's said on social media sites can be much more damaging. Take the Domino's debacle last April. Two employees thought it would be funny to post a video on YouTube that showed them violating health codes while preparing food, such as passing gas on sandwiches, in a Domino's kitchen in North Carolina. The video garnered millions of views on YouTube, but the problem was the comments that disgusted customers were posting on Twitter. Dominos was in danger of losing many loyal customers because they didn't have a Twitter account and weren't able to respond to the social media public right away. Needless to say they started a Twitter account the next day to start fielding customer concerns.

While this incident is one of the more extreme cases of what can happen when employees represent your company on social media, it nevertheless is a warning to any company — private and public — to be informed about the potential risks of using social media for business. But that's not to say there aren't countless rewards for employees advocating for your brand on social media sites. If your company is active in this space, the first thing you need to consider is the issue of accountability and how much or how little reign your employees should be given.

When it comes to your social media policies, every company is going to differ on what type of engagement is acceptable, says Andy Beal, CEO of Trackur.com, an online reputation monitoring site, and author of the book Radically Transparent. Beal, who advises companies of all sizes on how to effectively manage their reputation on the Internet, believes that any company that has a social media presence these days can benefit from having some type of policy in place, but he specifies that it need only include what is necessary to protect the company legally and financially.

At Animax Entertainment, a Van Nuys, California-based boutique online production agency that has produced interactive media campaigns for big brands like Carl's Jr. and MTV, the company's confidentiality agreement with clients precludes them from discussing any upcoming project before it is released. Because of the legal agreement that was already in place, Animax's president Michael Bellavia felt it was necessary to include a couple of lines in their employee handbook to clarify that the confidentiality agreement extended to employee interactions on social media sites.

Once a campaign is launched, employees have free reign in terms of what they say about a project online, but typically the social media interactions that happen involve employees spreading the word about a new campaign and responding to audience feedback. While not all the feedback from viewers is positive – "there's always going to be people who have negative comments," says Bellavia, Animax is not overly concerned with how employees respond, as long as they don't get into an argument over opinions. "Once a show is out there, we can't really change what we did, and the creative process is just something that's very subjective," he says. In that sense, Bellavia has opted to keep the company's social media policy somewhat informal so as to allow creative exchanges to take place. Similarly, Zappos, the online shoe retailer, has just a single phrase that serves as their social media policy: "Be real and use your best judgment."

Even when a company has a clear social media policy in place that provides more specifications as to what employees aren't allowed to post, there is no guarantee that everyone will represent the company exactly as you want. In crafting the necessary guidelines, Beal advises companies to keep in mind the ultimate function of social media as an outreach tool. "The more restrictions that you place on employees, the less room you give them to be a real asset to your online reputation," says Beal. "If you have an employee blogging policy that has hundreds of restrictions, you're stifling the ability for those employees to be ambassadors for the company."

Plus, it's not always the case that a negative interaction online turns out to be damaging. In fact, there are often positive results to an employee speaking their mind, as was Michael Hubbard's experience with a junior employee at his Raleigh, North Carolina-based advertising agency Media Two. Social media is at the core of Media Two's operations and everyone at the company, which has approximately 25 employees, has access to the Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts, as well as the company blog. Hubbard designated five people who consistently blog for the company, but Media Two's policy when it comes to blogging is that anyone can put up a post without it being read or edited beforehand.

About a year ago, an employee who had been working at the company for six months posted a blog that expressed his dissatisfaction with two major ad servers in the industry. The employee had tried giving the companies feedback by phone and e-mail, and when he received no response, he finally wrote about his experience in a blog. Within hours of the post, Hubbard had calls from the heads of both of those companies asking why Media Two employees were allowed to bad mouth other companies. In keeping with the blogging policy, Hubbard stood by his employee, and actually felt that the blog served to get the companies' attention. "Social media is about interaction," says Hubbard, "and we want to be interacting whether it's good or bad. In this case, there was a bad element out there that an employee addressed, and he did so in a very structured and professional way, while leaving the personal out of it."

One of the things that Hubbard recognizes is that employees make mistakes, whether it be on social media sites or in some other aspect of their job. But, Hubbard wants those mistakes to be a learning experience. "We don't threaten anyone," says Hubbard. "We want you to make mistakes, but we don't want you to make the same mistake twice." For Hubbard, being a small company in the social media space also has its advantages because the consequences that resulted from a disgruntled employee blog are much smaller and more easily mitigated than they would be at a bigger company where there might be higher industry regulations.

Hubbard's employee was not actually bad mouthing the company he worked for, which makes a huge difference given the company's policy of not misrepresenting the company. Media Two employees are told that whenever they are interacting personally on social media sites, they are also representing their professional life. The company's general policy about using social media sites professionally is that employees should not be using it to say things they are not supposed to. Hubbard also ensures that all employees have their privacy settings set properly on their personal Facebook and Twitter accounts. Employees are advised to restrict photos and other very personal content from work friends and professional contacts, because even in their personal lives they are identified as employees of Media Two.

Media Two's social media policy is an internal document that is constantly evolving based on the company's use of different (and newer) social media sites. Beal says that because of the changing nature of technology, a social media policy won't do you any good unless you are constantly communicating those policies to employees. "Take time to educate employees about how they can contribute," says Beal. This can be done through a short training session in which managers discuss best practices. Employees should also know who they can go to if they are unsure about posting something. Beal says it works well to assign someone at the company to the role of community manager who is in charge of overseeing any company activity online.

Additionally, a social media policy does not have to be a long, weighty document, says Beal. In fact, most companies that have social media policies have "no more than 10 bullet points," says Beal. It should be posted in a place where it is easily visible, he adds, like an internal company wiki. Ultimately, your social media policy should function as an informal guide, in which there is room for interpretation and discussion with employees. "The benefits of having your employees engaging in social media far outweigh the dangers of them saying something that they shouldn't," says Beal.

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For more resources on social media policies, and to view samples of other company's policies, visit:

Online Database of Social Media Policies:
http://socialmediagovernance.com/policies.php

16 Social Media Guidelines, Econsultancy Blog:
http://econsultancy.com/blog/5049-16-social-media-guidelines-used-by-real-companies