Does Your Organization Need a Social Media Policy?

Published October 10, 2012

The recent Olympic Games were the ‘Socialympics’ and, as our colleagues at arnoldi mcpherson illustrated in their excellent report, there were more than a handful of social media issues that sport organizations needed to address.  Though National and Provincial Sport Organizations (NSOs and PSOs) and even local sport organizations generally will not face social media issues of that magnitude – certainly social media issues are not uncommon ‘fires’ that sport organizations regularly need to put out.

Problems or issues (‘fires’) that sport organizations deal with are handled in two parts – proactive and reactive. That is, there are steps an organization takes before the problem occurs that are aimed to prevent it (proactive) and steps the organization takes after the problem has occurred that are aimed to fix it (reactive). Organizations craft Policies that outline a procedure to cover both the proactive and reactive steps.

For example, an organization is likely to have a Privacy Policy that covers how an organization handles its members’ personal information. The proactive steps overview what information can be collected, how it may be used, who has access to it, and so forth. The reactive steps of the Policy will overview what happens if someone has breached the proactive steps – what the member can do, if/how the violator of the Policy should be disciplined, etc. Privacy Policies are typically informed by existing federal legislation (PIPEDA), province-specific privacy legislation, and some existing common law (or case law). The law helps the organization know what to include in the Privacy Policy.

There is no law that directly informs social media use. Instead, some legislation can be applied to social media use (like the legislation related to harassment (cyber bullying), privacy, and defamation) and there is precious little social media-specific case law. So, organizations are typically ‘on their own’ when it comes to crafting policies for social media. An organization does not need a social media policy – like it needs a Privacy Policy informed by the legislation – but many organizations are realizing that a social media policy would be a useful tool to help put out the more frequent social media fires.

Increasingly, in response to requests and questions from sport organizations, we are recommending the following:

  • Social Media Use Policy – for the organization’s staff and other stakeholders (internal document)
  • Social Media Guidelines for Athletes – ‘guidelines’ not ‘policy’ (internal document)
  • Social Media Guidelines for Coaches – ‘guidelines’ not ‘policy’ (internal document)
  • Social Media Policy – for coaches and athletes (external document)
  • Updated Code of Conduct or Athlete Agreement

The five documents work together to give organizations both the proactive and reactive solutions to social media issues.

Social Media Use Policy

This is an internal document that is used by staff, board members, committee members, and other stakeholders to guide their personal use of social media and their use of the organization’s branded social media. Organizations may use Twitter or Facebook to communicate information to members and the Social Media Use Policy outlines what information should be shared, when it should be shared, who is sharing it (generally a communications person), how and if this person responds to questions and comments in social media, and other best practices for social media involvement. Incidentally, an organization’s social media use should be connected to its strategic plan.

A Social Media Use Policy can also set organizational directives for how staff, volunteer leaders, and stakeholders represent themselves on social media and whether and when they can act or speak on social media on behalf of the organization. If the Executive Director has a personal twitter – how much (if any) of their tweets should be related to the organization?  Should the Executive Director have two twitters – one for personal comments and one for work comments? Staff, directors, and committee members can be considered ‘representatives’ of the organization and, when they are acting in their capacity of a representative of the organization, their social media use should be directed by this Social Media Use Policy.

This type of Policy is not dissimilar to a Communications Policy which some organizations may already have. Employment Agreements may also cover some of the same content and, in lieu of crafting a brand new Policy, could be updated to include communication on organization-branded social media and/or as representatives of the organization.

Guidelines for Athletes and Coaches

The majority of social media ‘fires’ come from athletes or coaches using social media in a way that the organization feels is inappropriate. For example, an athlete might tweet “the organization is corrupt” and the organization might feel it has been defamed. Or, a coach might instruct all his players to join a team-specific Facebook group and a parent might complain about the coach-athlete interactions that are occurring out-of-sight on this online medium.

Guidelines for Athletes and Coaches (which could and likely should be separated into two separate documents) is the proactive step for helping coaches and athletes avoid any situations that the organization may feel are inappropriate and potentially troublesome. Importantly, these ‘Guidelines’ would not be ‘Rules’ or ‘Policy’ – but instead organization-recommended ‘best practices’ or ‘tips’ for the coaches and athletes who are using social media. Every coach and athlete (and parent, and organization, etc) has their own opinion for what is ‘proper’ and ‘okay’ for social media use. Though areas of the law (harassment, privacy, luring, etc) do inform some of these guidelines, there is still no ‘right way’ to interact on social media. Athletes and coaches must use their best judgment – and the organization can take a role here by presenting expert-informed guidelines for use that help guide and develop the athletes’ and coaches’ best judgment.

The Guidelines for Athletes and Coaches could be distributed internally to these groups or be part of the registration package or other communiqué from the organization to its members. The Guidelines would include general tips like 'watch what you say' and 'careful with your language' - but also more specific guidance for athletes (like what to do if your coach adds you to Facebook) and for coaches (like what to do if you see a picture of a minor athlete drinking). Organizations may also desire a more detailed education component – like a clinic or training session held at a coaching conference or AGM – to aid in the distribution of these guidelines and best practices.

Social Media Policy

This is the main document that most organizations want because it serves to overview the reactive steps of handling a social media issue. But the only real ‘teeth’ the document should have is its references to an Updated Code of Conduct or Athlete Agreement. An athlete who claims, on twitter, that ‘the organization is corrupt’ is still presumably breaching the organization’s existing Code of Conduct. The organization does not need to make distinctions for how or on what medium the athlete violated the Code. If an organization already has policies that cover behaviour and discipline, there does not need to be an additional policy that covers behaviour and discipline on social media.

This Social Media Policy should do two things. First, it should remind the member that behaviour or conduct that occurs on social media is covered under the organization’s appropriate policy for behaviour (the Code of Conduct that applies to athletes, coaches, and other members of the organization, or the Athlete Agreement in the case of national team athletes who execute a specific agreement with the sport organization).  Second, it should reference the Guidelines for use (or training session, clinic, or educational component) that the organization has produced or distributed internally to its members. This Policy can be a very short document.

The updates to Codes of Conduct and Athlete Agreements can also be straightforward. Most organizations use a mechanism (like a registration form or agreement) to remind members that they are held to standards of behaviour which are outlined in an agreement or a Code of Conduct. The organization’s existing standards of behaviour likely already cover most issues that can happen in social media (harassment, defamation, violations of privacy, etc) but the organization should review and update these documents to include standards more specific to social media (such as cyber-bullying).

The main areas where we help organizations when we’re asked about a ‘social media policy’ is with the content contained in the Guidelines and with interlinks among the organization’s existing policies. Most organizations want to discipline members who use social media inappropriately – but defining ‘inappropriate’ is the main roadblock. By adopting the series of documents above, an organization will introduce the proactive step (the Guidelines) and clarify/streamline the reactive step (the Social Media Policy plus the updated standards) which both work in concert with the organization’s pre-existing policies. We have experience helping organizations with these issues so please feel free to contact us.

Kevin Lawrie

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