What's Your Corporate Twitter Policy?

Jeremiah Owyang stirred up something of a micro-blogging storm earlier today, starting with an excellent summary post about the growing use of Twitter as a rapid-fire means of connecting, communicating, meme-tracking, and generally following the daily thoughts, deeds and interests of friends and like-minded people throughout the noosphere.

(Aside: perhaps Twitter, in one sense, is the noosphere - the entire sphere of human thought, delivered in tantalising 140 character fragments).

The response to Jeremiah's post has been remarkable, with more than 300 comments at the time I'm writing this - 300 new people for Jeremiah to follow on Twitter (yikes!). I really like his succinct, poetic restatement of Metcalfe's Law:

The Fabric becomes stronger as the Threads connect
As it happens, I came across Jeremiah's post just as I was having a conversation with a client about corporate policies to address employees' use of social media tools and spaces such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

It's a topic that often comes up in my discussions with clients and one I've been watching with interest for the last five years or so. The first time I came across something approximating a corporate blogging policy was listening to the advice of Cathy Reuben, a labour and employment lawyer, at one of the first big blogging conferences back in 2003. Cathy was kind enough to sit with me after her panel session so that I could write up a post from her presentation notes. Reading that post over again now, I think her advice for blogging employees and employers still holds up pretty well.

There have been all kinds of developments in the realm of "acceptable use" guidelines, advice and policies since then, from the benign to the ridiculous. I guess every organization needs to look at this space from their own perspective and figure out what's going to work within their culture.

Clearly, as Twitter and other nano-blogging, micro-personal-broadcasting "conversation ecosystem" things continue to grow, the membrane gets more and more porous. I love that. But there are punters out there concerned about how tools like Twitter and environments such as Facebook could be used for competitive intelligence and other nefarious uses.

I'm sure some of the chaps meeting round the table at the recently-launched big business Blog Council are having conniptions about precisely this kind of thing. Or, to be fair, the main participants at the Blog Council are probably all cool and Gonzo about what's going on with Twitter and the like - happy to watch their colleagues frolic freely in the untrammeled, bucolic innocence of the social media meadow. But I bet there's some over-suited corporate lawyers hovering in the background, quietly breaking into a flop sweat.

It's a quandary. This is the same battleground we've been fighting back and forth over for years. I can recall lengthy, heated discussions with CEOs, clients, and colleagues about whether they should respond to (actual, physical) letters of complaint from clients. Later, it was whether or not to read and respond to postings in web discussion forums. Then, what happens when your employees (or even your CEO) are caught posting anonymously? And what do you do about leaks? Or the fact that you can now see that your team mate spent the last 3 hours playing goddam Scrabulous on Facebook, when they were supposed to be drafting that report for you.

The more porous the membrane between you and the outside world, the greater the alignment between you, your colleagues, and your customers, as Hugh said. Yes. But eek!

As Lionel Menchaca put it: "Transparency is still key, but the reality for large corporations is that there are some things we can't discuss," - and some things you definitely don't want to find your employees posting links to online.

For the record, the client I happened to be chatting with when I came across Jeremiah's post are EXTREMELY clueful. They really don't want to get into anything heavy-handed, but they have good reason to be concerned about the lovely leakiness of social media, simply because a lot of their work involves handling really confidential client-related stuff, and not everyone has the good sense to observe the boundaries of good common sense.

So. It's just pragmatic to expect that policies of some kind are inevitable and, from a disclosure point of view, necessary. Not One Policy To Rule Them All, though. Thoughtful, specific policies that work for your organisation. You can't buy this kind of thing off the shelf.

Although, that reminds me...

One of the other things I referenced in my comment at Jeremiah's post was something I've mentioned in presentations and client discussions a few times: "The Earl Gilmore Rulebook". I first heard something of Earl's story from Doc Searls a long time ago. Earl founded a software company some time around 1980 - way back when you could call a startup something as simple and literal as "Business Application Systems" without fear of ambiguity.

As Doc tells it, Earl's entire employee manual consisted of two pages, with one rule per page:

Rule #1: Use good judgement.
Rule #2: Violate Rule #1 and you're in deep shit.

To my mind, that still stands as one of the best, general purpose, all-encompassing HR policies I've ever come across.

OK, so it may not work for everyone. To that end, I've started to collect a list o' links to other examples of social media policies from far and wide, and a handful of interesting articles about this question. If you're interested, I've bookmarked them at my del.icio.us account, here.

Meanwhile, an interesting side effect of the comment I left on Jeremiah's post is that I seem to have picked up about 20 new Twitter followers in the last couple of hours. Welcome, friendly stalkers!