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The Big Thing Companies Get Wrong About Online Behavior Policies

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I’m fascinated by how mechanisms of control — governments, regulators, corporate governance and so on — attempt to come to terms with the modern Information Age. The Internet, in particular, strongly rejects any attempt at control, either in the form of public shame from the communities that inhabit it or by simply routing around shutdowns and censorship. In such an environment, I see my primary charge as helping companies not only discover (1) their mutually beneficial relationship with online communities, but also (2) their relationship to their own employees about the topic of online communities.

I want to focus on the latter here because this is where I often detect an unnecessarily high level of anxiety from companies. In particular, I’m thinking about the much-discussed topic of so-called “social media policies” or, using my preferred term, “online behavior policies.” By focusing on the “thou shalt not” rather than the “thou shalt (responsibly),” companies too often neglect to architect such policies according to the way online citizens actually behave.

The core principle of Internet behavior is strongly driven by self-interest. Sure, communities around causes and topics form, but these are merely artifacts of voluntary exchange where the personal and monetary switching costs to the individual are quite low. The first-order variable remains you, the individual, pursuing your interests whenever it suits you on any number of devices both portable and otherwise. Face it: The number of employees who wake up in the morning and say, “My company’s reputation is a chief decision variable for what I’m going to post online today” is very small. (If you are the type to visit this site regularly, you are probably a member of this tiny group. Congratulations.) This is something that no policy will change — and it takes vast amounts of arrogance to think it will.

What if you instead refocus your policy on the employee’s self-interest, such as matters of personal reputation and adhering to commonly held mores within online communities? What if you educate your workforce in terms of what makes for good online citizenship? I argue that, for the most part, you arrive at a policy that both employer and employee can reasonably agree with. You achieve the same goal — preservation of the company’s reputation — but through a route that is much more compatible with how, broadly speaking, the Internet actually works.

I’m not saying that an effective online behavior policy should ignore admonitions against, say, disclosing trade secrets. Sure, such items are included in the garden-variety company handbook, but it’s worth repeating in the context of online behavior simply because the consequences of breaking such rules are so much more dramatic on the Web.

Nevertheless, recognition about this fundamental aspect of online communities is essential for the long-term relevance of any enterprise and a healthy, sustainable employer-employee relationship. Maybe even eschewing the term “policy” might be a good start.

Phil Gomes is a senior vice president with Edelman Digital. Follow him on Twitter @philgomes. He occasionally blogs about PR at Where the Fishermen Ain’t and about Brazilian spirits at Cachaçagora.

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