How to write social media guidelines

Social media expert Ysabel Gerrard offers her advice on setting the rules for your employees.

Yugi the Giraffe - 20 June 2022

In 2022, it's becoming increasingly important to compile social media guidelines for your organisation. But how do you go about it?

To discuss this and other related issues, we recently invited Dr Ysabel Gerrard, a social media expert and lecturer in Digital Media and Society at the University of Sheffield, to take part in a special YuLife webinar.

We share some of her thoughts below, taken from both the webinar itself and a separate interview. To learn more, you can watch the entire webinar here.

Potential opportunities

According to Ysabel's research most companies' social media guidelines have two things in common, both of which she feels are a mistake.

Firstly, they're overwhelmingly focused on limiting employees from posting about the company on social media, rather than encouraging them to do so in a positive way.

And secondly, they're overly restrictive, resulting in bad PR and missed opportunities, in cases where the company could have actually benefited.

She gives the example of Tony Piloseno aka @tonesterpaints, a part-time worker at US paint store Sherwin-Williams. Tony posted online videos about paint mixing that went viral on TikTok. In response, he prepared a presentation about how he could build on the videos' success to benefit the brand. But the company didn't want to hear it, and ultimately the employee was fired for gross misconduct.

"Although we can't 100% verify why he was fired, this seems like an example of where a brand has instinctively categorised social media activity as scary and wrong," says Ysabel. "But in my view, the number of views Tony got was an incredible marketing opportunity that was just missed and overlooked."

Restrictive guidelines

Another example Ysabel shares is Rosie HS, aka @iamrosiehs on Instagram, who applied for a social media manager job at food company Bad Brownie. She was asked to create some content for their account and see how well it performed. She did just that, and it went viral.

"People really latched on to it; it was a beautiful video," recalls Ysabel. "Rosie documented the whole experience of applying, what she was asked to do, the brand's feedback… everything went on her TikTok account."

The company, however, didn't give her the job, and Rosie got the sense they weren't happy about how transparent she'd been about documenting the process online. In Bad Brownie's defence, they were subject to some severe trolling from some fans of Rosie, over what should have been a private hiring decision.

Happily, Selfridges reached out to Rosie, and she's now happily employed, creating social content there instead.

Humanising brands

Ysabel says she understands the fear that some brands feel about exposing themselves openly on social media. But she believes there are huge benefits to be gained by being brave, and points to the fun videos supermarket staff made throughout lockdown as an example.

Tesco Express worker Hannah Lowther, for example, changed lyrics to popular songs and danced in the store, and her videos were huge hits on TikTok. "I think this kind of content humanises brands, and makes you think more positively about them, because they've allowed these videos to happen," argues Ysabel. "It makes you think: 'They must have a good manager'. And it signals they have a healthy and non-toxic environment."

Ysabel admits there's an element of risk in allowing your employees the freedom to create such content. But she feels that's heavily outweighed by the rewards that await.

"Your people are a potential goldmine for free marketing," she stresses. "Yes, it can go wrong, but it could also go really, really right. And ultimately, what companies need to realise is this: your people are your most valuable asset."

The need for nuance

Ysabel doesn't feel that social media guidelines are in themselves a bad thing. Outlawing things like engaging in hate speech and revealing company secrets is important, although she notes that many such issues are already covered by social media providers' own guidelines.

She does believe, though, that company social media guidelines need to be thought-through carefully, and above all, nuanced. "For example, people in different roles usually need different policies," she points out. "Someone who's the CEO should be expected to behave differently online than someone at a lower rank."

She also advises avoiding blanket bans. Many firms, for instance, make wearing uniforms on social media a sacking offence. "But I think that's a missed opportunity," argues Ysabel. "Of course, you could set your absolute hard-top level criteria for what people can be saying in uniform. But just banning uniforms as a whole means potentially sacrificing a huge amount of positive, free PR."

Prescriptive guidelines

So far, we've only looked at limiting what employees can post on social media. But there's another side to this. Some companies tell workers the things they should be posting, in order to promote the brand. Is that ever appropriate?

Ysabel believes it can be okay in certain situations, especially if the employee has been told this will be part of the job on hiring. But it does potentially cross a line into controlling people's private space, and needs to be handled with utmost sensitivity.

"I think it ultimately depends on the employee, because everybody's different," says Ysabel. "Some people feel that their socials are a hybrid between personal and professional lives, and we're seeing that a lot more. But we can't assume that everyone feels that way. For some people, their social activity is private, and that's the end to it."

Rather than insisting that employees post positive things about the brand, then, Ysabel suggests they focus on incentivising this, as a way of helping to fast-track a person's career.

"I think social media guidelines are often written in ways that imply people are going to do something wrong," she explains. "So it's all about: 'Don't do this; don't do that.' But actually, if you flip it, and talk about the opportunities, that's where you build that trust and that's where you get people excited."

Yugi the Giraffe

Yugi is our YuLife mascot. Like all giraffes they've got a big heart – in fact the biggest heart of all land animals.