According to Nielson’s Asia-Pacific Social Media Report released last year, 32 per cent of online users in the region access their social media accounts at work, making the workplace the most common access point.

Networks like Facebook and Twitter have become more than just a means of networking — they are a way to keep up-to-date with the latest happenings within virtual communities.  

Enterprises are becoming increasingly aware of the power of social media, with companies tapping on social networks as a branding, marketing or recruiting platform. 

The benefits of social media are clear. Social networks offer instant and frank opinions from netizens from all over the world. Enterprises use social networks as a way to reach potential customers while generating and owning conversations surrounding their brand.

Social media presents an opportunity to build thought leadership in the industry, ignoring geographical and cultural barriers. Customers are given a channel to question, get real-time responses and precise content to make informed decisions on their purchases. 

A double-edged sword

Despite all the benefits, social networking can be a double-edged sword for employers. On the one hand, staying in touch with stakeholders has become increasingly important. On the other, active social media engagement brings up the ever-present risk of employees divulging confidential information or putting up damaging posts in the cyber world.

Putting an outright ban on social media only means that companies will lose the chance to be clued in on the conversations by their social media engagers.

Instead, enterprises need to encourage the right values and put in place appropriate policies that help reduce risks and optimise opportunities in the social media space. The challenge is to create a policy that is a fine balance between setting controls to prevent cyber damage and encouraging participation to reap the benefits from positive engagement. 

Set directions, not limits

To ensure an effective social media policy, companies must first understand their employees and their existing corporate culture. Some companies simply need to remind employees to be responsible while others need to set clear guidelines on taboos.

Counter to traditional policy documents, which tend to set behavioural limits, a good social media policy details what an employee can do in the social media world.

With the rapidly evolving capabilities on the Web 2.0 platform, it is simply impossible to detail every possible boundary for an employee engaging in social media. Instead, a social media policy should seek to influence positive engagement by defining the ways in which the social platform can achieve a common objective.

For instance, when launching new products, companies can provide active social media engagers with content that they can leverage along with a set of suggestions on how the content can be blogged, tweeted or shared on social media sites.

Employee education on the concept of social media is also important. This does not merely entail a rundown on social media sites and their capabilities. Employees must be made acutely aware that social media platforms exist because of their openness.

Communities in the virtual world are built based on an environment of transparency. However, employees must understand that transparency does not mean a free rein to share everything about the company. The law of trade secrets still applies to the Internet and employees who divulge confidential or proprietary information via social media will still have to face the law.

The social media policy should not be a means to arm-twist employees to blog only positive views about the company. In opening up social media channels for employees, employers must recognise that internal processes alone do not always reinforce desired behaviour. A strong culture of mutual respect and trust will build an environment where employees are not afraid to share their opinions but are mindful of their boundaries.

Employees need to take pride in the fact that they are indeed ambassadors of their company and understand that whatever they post on the company has its implications.

Social media is young, evolving and here to stay. Whether or not a company is actively participating in social media platforms, there are bound to be conversations about it by its stakeholders.

As a new generation of constantly connected young employees join the workforce, it is timely that companies understand fully the impact of the social media phenomenon on their business.