Creating a Social Media Policy That Encourages Dialogue but Avoids Risk for Higher Education Institutions
August 22, 2012
Establishing a Social Media Policy
Even though social media is already being used by faculty and staff, it’s never too late to establish a social media policy that considers how best to use the medium as an educational and recruiting tool while preventing embarrassing incidents, or actions that could be offensive, or worse, running afoul of federal and state regulations.
The best social media policies are based on trust in the faculty and staff, and rooted in the desire to promote the school’s mission and values. When writing a social media code of conduct, it’s best to restate that mission and be consistent in the expectations the institution has of faculty and staff.
Following the recent guidance by the National Labor Relations Board on social media policies, examples should be used to clarify what kinds of behavior are prohibited by the social media policy. This is not only a best practice, but will make the policy less ambiguous and avoid a challenge by the NLRB. Spell out the policy in easily understandable language, free of legalese and technical jargon. The easier it is to comprehend, the more social media can be used effectively and seen as a positive tool by everyone.
A clear policy should also delineate the difference between speaking on behalf of the school and personal identity. The policy should apply consistently across the institution, with clear advice on disclosure and the use of a disclaimer if the opinions represented are personal.
Keep in mind too that there may be those who do not understand the power of social media or realize their comments exist interminably on the Internet. There may be a need to educate not just once, but continually as the social media sites grow and change.
Training on establishing proper privacy settings, as well as how and when things get posted, is helpful to create a deeper understanding of the scope of online conversations.
Include the legal issues at stake in the social media policy
Faculty and staff should be made fully aware of the possible risks that they and the institution face from an inappropriate use of social media or an inadvertent mistake. There are state and federal privacy laws such as FERPA and HIPAA (if a medical school is involved), copyright and intellectual property law, as well as plagiarism issues at play and they should be clearly explained in the policy.
It’s extremely important too to drive home to faculty and staff that they represent the school at all times whether speaking to one another, in public forums, and especially when interacting with students.
Hear What is Being Said About Your School on Social Media
Colleges and universities are abuzz with conversations all taking place on social media platforms. It would be impossible to try scan every page and site. There are several excellent tools to help you monitor what is being said about the school, both positive and negative, as well as alert you to faculty or staff who may be making inappropriate comments or statements that could prove harmful to the school.
Set up Google Alerts (www.google.com/alerts) with keywords pertaining to the school, the major departments or colleges within the school, and the most active faculty. Links with postings containing these keywords will be delivered to your mailbox.
Other sites that allow you to monitor social media activity include Socialmention.com, Whostalkin.com, Tweetbeep.com and Sidewiki, which is Google-based. In addition, there are various pay-for-service monitoring tools available.
Managing the Negative
If your social media policy has been carefully constructed and your faculty and staff have been properly trained, they will understand the positive power of social media and negative impact if it is misused - whether intentionally or unintentionally. Stress the importance of recognizing that anyone might be seen as serving as a spokesperson for the school, even if the communication is on a personal site.
Most important, be prepared if negative comments begin to circulate. Take a look at your crisis communications plan and insert policy about how, when, and if to respond to negative postings. Many organizations find that mistakes come from a lack of training and awareness on behalf of the user, so it may be as simple as admitting a mistake and moving on. However, it is a best practice to be prepared for the worst and to have a plan in place. Consider engaging crisis communications professionals to assist if something begins to escalate.
Consult your legal team as to liability and actions to take, in particular if the negative comments are coming from within the organization. And double-check your insurance policies.
It’s Possible to Strike a Balance
Social media brings so much to the power of public dialogue and higher education is only beginning to take advantage of all that it can bring to learning. That is why it is crucial to strike a balance between protecting the institution and encouraging important conversations that benefit the school and students through a well-crafted social media policy.
Gerald R. Gagne, CPA, CISA, is a Member of the Firm at Wolf & Company, P.C., and leads the Firm’s Risk Management Services practice. He can be reached at email@example.com and (617) 428-5455.
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