Digital Dilemmas: Does your business need a Twitter policy?

To police tweets or not to police 'em, that is the question...

To police tweets or not to police 'em, that is the question...

Are fears about loose-lipped microbloggers keeping you awake at night? Should you be regulating your workforce's use of Twitter? silicon.com's Natasha Lomas deconstructs this Digital Dilemma.

This column is pretty much the flip side of another I wrote last year: 'Should your business be on Twitter?' - which just goes to show that social media cuts both ways. It's both a giving and a taking medium.

Yes Twitter gives in spades - want to tap into your favourite celebrity's inner voice? That's the easy part. Tuning it out once you've been exposed may prove more difficult. And before Twitter evangelist Stephen Fry announced his current mini-break from the microblogging site - so he can concentrate on writing a book - finding out where he was jetting off to each week was as unavoidable as the feelings of envy that welled up as a result.

But celebrities are just the tip of the Twitter iceberg: analysts, news organisations, MPs, retailers, artists and - yes - journalists have all colonised the site, pumping out a steady stream of opinion; breaking news; self-promotion; self-promotion and discount offers; self-promotion and naval-gazing; self-promotion and self-love etc etc... Sometimes this kind of 'giving' can feel more like 'taking', but I digress.

Twitter

Should your business have a Twitter policy?
(Photo credit: respires via Flickr.com under the following Creative Commons licence)

Twitter's generosity with info is also why businesses might be eyeing it with distrust. Where there's production (in this case: tweets), there is also consumption of the time variety - i.e. your workforce t[w]ittering and tweeting when they should be applying nose to grindstone. Which is reason number one why a business might consider having a Twitter policy.

Time-wasting is not a new accusation for a web 2.0 property: that charge was levelled at Facebook years ago when interest in the social networking site was running amok in offices with all the fervour of an undead zombie hoard.

However time-wasting is the least of your worries when it comes to Twitter. Just ask the HR director - or, if you have one, the company lawyer. Twitter is a broadcast medium which means that unless a user has locked their tweets to public view - which defeats the point of microblogging and is therefore the exception rather than the rule - whatever they write can be seen by anyone with eyes and an internet connection. Which means the potential pool of 'disgusteds from Tunbridge Wells' is now an ocean. Worried yet?

Twitter scenarios you might be sweatily contemplating:

  • The work experience boy tweeting your Johnny-come-lately attitude to health and safety
  • The biggest motor-mouth in sales spilling the beans on that competitor-trouncing deal - the one that's not actually inked yet
  • The toilet humour of the tech department crawling right out of the server room (but not out of the sewer)
  • The sex pest in marketing taking casual stalking of the office newbie to the next level - and thrusting their inappropriate stream-of-consciousness upon the world in the process
  • Ms Potty Mouth in design publishing an expletive-strewn list of most-hated clients - including those she wants to make into human voodoo dolls
  • One of your over-stretched call centre operatives having their mental breakdown in public
  • One of your direct reports letting slip about your penchant for browsing lingerie websites during lunchtimes...

And so on.

But before you hotfoot it to HR to bash out a 'Changes to the company policy' email and redraft the corporate handbook, read on. Panic is for wimps - or for those who haven't done proper due diligence on the risks involved.

Yes: the existence of Twitter means some of what goes on in your business, and is said or done by your staff, will make it into the public domain. But that's always been the case (just think of the Friday post-work drink down the local boozer). This is what you get when you employ humans rather than robots. Of course the internet is a whole lot bigger than your local pub but people talking publically about work? That's as old as the hills. And gossip has not stopped the business world from turning. What is new is that Twitter records all this communication and makes it perpetually available online - to be spied on, searched or perused at leisure. Which makes microblogging a form of publishing meaning libel laws do apply.

And, as better people than me have previously pointed out, the law's as tricky as a 10-foot snake - so do have a chat with the company lawyer to identify any big concerns he or she may have.

For some businesses a Twitter policy - or even an outright ban - is inevitable and probably already in place. No one wants to see NHS staff tweeting their jobs. They should be far too busy saving lives. Financial services companies and law firms likewise won't be encouraging staff to mouth off about clients online. Both will already have confidentiality clauses fire-branded into staff contracts - and lawyers at least are such slaves to their desks they probably won't know the meaning of a 'social life'. As for civil servants, those who are sanctioned to tweet will have been issued with the government's 20-page handbook on using Twitter. So their tweets are not their own anyway.

But what about those businesses not already straitjacketed when it comes to Twitter? Should they be drafting a policy or not?

Frankly it depends on the industry you are in and the business you do. Sorry but you're going to have to use your judgement on whether to get heavy and chain Twitter in a windowless basement or be all liberal and give it free rein and a glass-plated office to call its own. Truly it's horses for courses.

That said I would like to make a plea on microblogging's behalf. If you can leave it alone, please do. Have some faith in your staff. You hired them, so they should be intelligent individuals who are more than capable of keeping company secrets, self-censoring their own critical data and making the world a more interesting place in the process by exchanging information and networking with others in their industry (yes Twitter can have business benefits too).

If your workforce is not capable of acting like this then put thoughts of a Twitter policy aside: it's time to take a closer look at your hiring procedure instead.