Personal and Professional Identity: Social Media Policies for Nonprofits

I was joined today for a panel at SXSW to discuss the blurry or blurring lines of personal and professional identify online. With me on the panel was Debra Askanase, Jess Main, and Vanessa Rhinesmith. This topic was especially relevant at a festival like SXSW where many attendees are representing themselves, their organizations or companies, and even side projects or local groups. Most of the people in the room said they represent both themselves and their organization through their personal profiles online, like Facebook and Twitter. The panel shared a few key directives for nonprofits working to support staff with social media.

First, assume that the public knows where you work. It is 2012 and the general public is familiar enough with online tools to search or otherwise identify employees of an organization, especially those that occasionally (or frequently) post about the organization and their work. Instead of creating policies that take the stance of deciding which tools can be used and how, organizations should assume that staff will use the tools they prefer and that if those accounts are public that members of the community may find them. This means that organizations need to equip staff with suggestions about how to engage and respond to messages that come to their individual accounts as well as resources for where to direct people for the right information or best contacts at the organization.

Secondly, knowledge management and success planning are just as important for social media as they are for other areas of your organization. We plan for staff turn over or board member changes, but many organizations are completely unprepared for a staffing change if it is the employee managing social media. Panelists suggested having internal Google documents or other shared documents where the log in information for social channels could be stored and shared, for example. If your organization has only one staff person managing social media, and they are sick or something more serious happens, other staff need to easily be able to access and use those tools. That even goes so far, as @oxfam has done, to provide documentation about the kinds of questions or comments are frequently posted, suggested priorities of information to share on various channels, and so on.

Lastly, policies and processes aren’t defined generally but need to match your organization and culture. For some organizations, especially those dealing with social services or critical data, there may be policies or legal requirements that apply to staff use and content online in a way that may not be appropriate for organizations working on more public engagement projects, for example. Panelists suggested that individuals and organizations should be transparent and proactive about identifying affiliation in profiles while still being considerate that it is okay to “say no to friending”. When getting direct friend requests on Facebook or deciding between a public or private Twitter account, for example, individuals should feel empowered to set the limits and privacy settings to the levels they want.

This is an ever-changing conversation without real “best practices” but only better practices than others. I gave the participants some homework that I’ll share with you, too: start writing things down! Whether it is the login information for a new platform you want to try or insights about the kinds of questions or comments you often see people posting, suggested responses to negative comments or notes about the community groups using various channels – write it down! You will be able to develop resources for your staff, identify areas that require policies, and even support succession planning by starting to document in real time.

You can access resources and add your own examples, blog posts, or information at: http://bit.ly/sxkeepitreal

Continue the conversation on Twitter with #sxkeepitreal