Social media: Policies or guidelines?

As my co-presenter Teresa V. Parrot and I continue working on the content for our upcoming Academic Impressions webcast, Starting A Social Media Policy, a recurring question arises:

Should universities have social media policies or social media guidelines?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this subject. If your institution has a written social media document, is it a policy or a guidelines document? Which approach is preferable for your institution? Why? What are the advantages or drawbacks?

If you have strong opinions on this subject, please weigh in below. I’d love to steal your ideas.

Also, if you have a social media policy and would like to share the link, please also post it below. Thanks to those of you who shared your policies in the comments section of my earlier blog post on this subject.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

17 thoughts on “Social media: Policies or guidelines?”

  1. Currently, we have nothing ‘official’. What I work with is a little guidelines/best practices document that I whipped up. Its meant to share what I’ve learned from starting and managing communities for the university: setting goals, choosing a platform, branding for recognition, publicizing, feeding the community, monitoring – for everyone’s enjoyment – not for policing, and such. I figured its better for us all to share the knowledge and work together to build a voice rather than for me to try to put out fires/tell people what do to.

    I’m on the fence regarding if policies are needed. In some sense, working without one allows more freedom because those who would sign off on a policy would limit what could be discussed and think they hold the right to delete or squash things because they fear negative comments or open dialog. But then again, having a clear policy with the understanding of the medium could foster a stronger integrated campuswide presence because it could be enforced that we all play by the same rules.

    I’d love to hear more about this and philosophize on. I do enjoy the topic…


  2. I advocate for guidelines…which remind users that all of the existing policies regarding confidentiality, professional behavior, etc., also apply when using social media. Policies must go through much heavier levels of executive scrutiny and are therefore less flexible to change. Since the rules of social media are still evolving (see also Facebook over the past month), that flexibility is helpful in providing meaningful counsel to campus clients.

  3. Does a policy document and guidelines have to be mutually exclusive? I don’t think they do. A school SHOULD have an overarching policy document on electronic information, sharing, and/or privacy and social media should be discussed. But, as a benefit to the members of the institution, guidelines should be made available (included in the policy document) to instruct and inform.

    The difficulty in developing just a policy document is appeasing all interests (legal, marketing/communication, users) while making it readable and useful to the audience. It makes sense to develop policy to establish rules and limitations, but widely distribute a guidelines document to give the audience something to reference if they make the jump into social media.

  4. Great question. This gets at a more basic question of what is the difference between a policy and a guideline?

    Is it a matter of approval or layers of review and sign-off?
    Or is there a distinction in terms of enforcement and penalty when the policy or guideline is ignored?

    I lean towards (and counsel higher ed clients) the development of guidelines that help users across the institution to understand how their social media activity fits into the institution AND the inclusion of social media into the institution’s policies on acceptable use of computing resources, privacy/confidential information, workplace behavior (harassment).

    I look forward to hearing what others have to say and share.

  5. Great responses and much appreciated! In our department, we opted to create social media guidelines to allow for the sort of flexibility each of you touch on here. I think Mary Ann’s point about connecting such guidelines to acceptable usage policies for computing, privacy, etc., is sound advice.

    One of the concerns I have about creating a policy, in addition to the process of getting such a policy approved, is in getting one approved that allows for the type of flexibility Davina references. As fluid as the social mediascape is these days, I’m afraid it would devour a lot of time to simply keep our policy up to date — at least until the next round of changes in social media occurs.

  6. I think this exact topic is covered very well in chapter 5 of “Open Leadership” by Charlene Li. She refers to the concept of a “sandbox covenant” – using the sandbox as a metaphor for an organization’s openness to developing uses for social technologies. I.e., the sandbox has clearly defined limits, but within those limits it’s “OK to play.” She also addresses the contradiction of “structuring openness.” Good resources via her blog as well:

  7. The short answer is “Yes.”

    Institutions should have social media POLICIES for the INSTITUTION. The guidelines are for the HUMAN BEINGS.

    The guidelines should grow from and be supported by the policy document. When human beings are creating content or interacting with each other using the tools social media offer us, they shouldn’t — and shouldn’t be expected to — be referring to some policy document in the effort to adhere to the “Institution X way.” They should KNOW what’s sensible and what’s reasonable.

    A social media policy might be written with broadbrush goals and principles. X seeks to engage using social media tools. Content created by X employees should reflect positively on the institution. etc etc.

    The guidelines should be modeled after people like Google (“Don’t be evil”) or Intel (, using plain and clear language. Look at Intel’s:

    “Be transparent.
    Be judicious. Make sure your efforts to be transparent don’t violate Intel’s privacy, confidentiality, and legal guidelines for external commercial speech.
    Write what you know.
    Perception is reality.
    It’s a conversation. Talk to your readers like you would talk to real people in professional situations.
    Are you adding value?
    Your Responsibility: What you write is ultimately your responsibility. Participation in social computing on behalf of Intel is not a right but an opportunity, so please treat it seriously and with respect.
    Create some excitement.
    Be a Leader.
    Did you screw up? If you make a mistake, admit it.
    If it gives you pause, pause.”

    There’s more detail there for Intel employees, but that’s the nub of it.

  8. Bob – Great observations, and you cited one of the exemplary social media guidelines around (Intel’s). We’ve tried to model our own campus guidelines somewhat after Intel.

  9. Bob says it very well. (Reminds of my dad who, when asked if he wanted devil’s food cake or angel food cake, always answered, “Yes.”)

    There’s no way our institution won’t have some kind of policy–we have policies for everything. I’m on the group currently working on drafting language.

    We need one that doesn’t get people sideways with policies already in existence, such as ones concerning personal use of state resources. Otherwise those existing policies could be used to club someone for doing really good work.

    Policies define what it means to do it LEGALLY. The guidelines will help people do it WELL.


  10. Bob, your distinction between policy and guidelines is terrific. How are they used and by whom? Distinction of “institutional policy” and “people guidelines” is really helpful.

    Thanks to all.

  11. When I first proposed our social media guidelines as a policy, there was a lot of push-back from our policy review team, which felt that the guidelines would not survive the faculty review process. The more broad-reaching a policy, the harder it is to get through the process (perhaps appropriately). As others have noted, the update process also can be time-consuming.

    However, all I need to do to establish and update guidelines is to gain my supervisor’s approval and post them to our website. Our area has taken the lead at our university, so other areas appear to be comfortable with us providing guidance.

    Also as others have noted, many good practices in social media (be careful of FERPA, etc.) are already covered by existing university policies. Guidelines allow us to formally close the loop there without looking like we are being dictatorial.

    Coming full circle, we are in process of developing a policy covering use of our name, logo and identity on social media sites, which complements our existing policies regulating these items in other channels. I think narrower policies such as this are easier to gain approval for and easier to enforce once they are in place.

  12. I’d like to pitch my tent in the guidelines camp. Policy only begets more policy. And who’s going to enforce such policy? What are the penalties? I believe it’s just as effective to suggest someone to follow best practices as it is to ask them to follow a policy.

    For a great social media policy/guideline resource, I’d point to Vanderbilt University. Heavy on the guidelines, light on policy:

  13. We just finished the rough draft of our SMM policy–long process of research, etc. I did a series of about five blogs on the subject here: back in the beginning of May. I would be glad to send anyone our rough draft to take a look. Just email I hope to have the policy in place and training done by fall. I think it’s a must to CYA and make sure that social media is managed from one central place of thought.

  14. Personally, I think all organizations have social media policies. There are businesses that heavily rely on confidentiality clauses and people inside the organization blabbing about it over the internet is not a good thing. Sure, you can fire the person, tell him to stop, but the damage has been done. Guidelines are good so all parties now how to act accordingly. I found a link about the importance of setting social media guidelines and tips on how to get your people involved in following the guidelines:

  15. Okay, Careaga. As your co-presenter, I feel like I need to represent the other side of this coin.

    I advocate for a policy…I welcome the policy review process and think having the endorsement of the president, legal counsel and the faculty, staff and student governance (representing those who post!) gives the policy buy-in and allows for teeth should you have offenders. As long as you include language that has some fluidity (but isn’t gray) and plan for routine and regular review of the language you should be fine. Some campus environments lend themselves to policies and some believe that policies are just big brother at work.

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