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Maybe you've heard the story about the Whirlpool employee who tweeted a tasteless joke about Obama's grandmother during the last presidential election. Or how Microsoft drew heat last fall when one of the people who manage its Twitter account dissed conservative talking head Ann Coulter. Or the ad agency employee assigned to the Chrysler account, who used the @ChryslerAutos twitter account to skewer Detroit drivers -- and lost his agency the Chrysler business. Each of these stories shows how brands can be damaged by an employee's comments in social media. It doesn't matter whether the employee was acting with malice or merely using poor judgment.
There's no "undo" button on brand damage caused by employees who don't understand appropriate business use of social media.
What can you do? Start raising employees' social savvy the day they come on board. Make relationship training part of overall training for new employees. Social media is all about relationships. Your customers are online, connected and communicating with the rest of the marketplace. They're learning from each other about you and your competitors. You need to be part of that conversation, contributing in ways that build your brand.
[ How do you get your employees excited about using social business tools? Read 10 Ways To Get Users On The Social Business Bus.]
To involve your employees in the social media conversation, you need clear, sound policies. You can find suggestions for developing your social media guidelines online: Associations Now offers a handy eight-point list. The Small Business Administration also offers useful social media guidelines for business.
Disseminating your company's social media policy is a required starting point -- but don't stop there. Telling your employees what to do and what not to do is only the beginning. To make it stick, provide a training program that includes interactive scenarios. Let employees practice what they've learned and give immediate feedback. Training is a good place to address questions about private vs. business use of social media. Make it rich with instruction, examples and practice opportunities.
But don't consider social media training a "one and done" activity, suitable for new hires only. Relationship training should be an ongoing component of your talent development. Your market is out there having conversations through technology, and your employees should be participating in those relationships.
Identify the socially savvy in your company and ensure they live and breathe your social media guidelines. They should, for example, understand and follow your company's policy on sharing confidential information. Once you're sure they're modeling the right behavior, encourage them to mentor others up, down and across the organization. Social is no place for traditional org charts.
Here's an opportunity to connect your social media-savvy young people with others to teach how to tweet, pin or blog. Let them model for others the relationship skills that make social conversations into brand builders: skills that work as well in "real life" as they do in the virtual community. I'm talking about being accurate, transparent and respectful of others' intellectual property and privacy.
Remember, you get the behavior you reward. To ensure your employees use social to build and nurture relationships, tie relationship-centric behavior to performance metrics and compensation.
Be specific about the behavior you're looking for -- what types of comments you expect employees to make on social platforms, with explicit examples of appropriate and inappropriate business use of social media. Once you've specified the behavior, communicate the reward.
Create metrics that tie social media activity to performance evaluation. When you distribute the guidelines, make the connection between behavior and reward clear to your employees. Although using social media is fun, it is an added responsibility for employees, and should be recognized in job descriptions and compensation structures. You might consider using a game-like system of rewards -- Badgeville is one example -- to recognize employees who excel at using social media to strengthen your bond with staff and highlight successful strategies.
You don't want to be the next company that has to try to get the genie back in the bottle after an unfortunate social media blast by one of your employees. Your first line of defense is your corporate culture; companies with integrity create few opportunities for employees to air grievances. Your second line of defense is a clearly defined policy on employees' use of social media within the business context. Your third line of defense is your dissemination of that policy, through training of new employees and followup formal and informal training, backed up by metrics tied to compensation/rewards that put your money where your mouth is.
What's the unifying theme behind my recommendations? Relationship economics. Leave nothing to chance about employees' use of social to nurture relationships, and your brand will shine like gold.