March 30, 2010
How To

Establish a Social Media Code of Conduct: 5 Actions to Protect Your Company’s Reputation

SUMMARY: Recent changes in FTC guidelines have reinforced the importance of establishing policies to keep your social media and online marketing above-board and ethical. But those policies need to be followed.

Read advice from a word-of-mouth marketing ethics expert on creating and enforcing your team’s social media marketing policies. Includes five actions to take now, and links to ethical codes and FTC guidelines.
The Federal Trade Commission's updated Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising, which took effect on Dec. 1, 2009, was a wakeup call to marketers. Those working in the blogosphere and social media realized their actions could attract federal scrutiny if they werent careful.

Many responded by updating or drafting internal policies that reaffirmed their commitment to following basic ethics and regulatory guidelines, such as:

o Disclosing their identities in social networks
o Disclosing relationships with bloggers
o Honestly conveying product performance

"It's now a given that companies should have policies in place to guide both employee and business behavior,” says Gary Spangler, Leader, eMarketing, DuPont.

But having a policy in place isn't enough: Marketers need to ensure that everyone follows those rules, or else risk PR or legal trouble. Spangler is on the Word of Mouth Marketing Association's board of directors and leads WOMMA’s Brands Council. We asked him to describe how his team keeps DuPont's online marketing honest in the eyes of the public -- and the law.

Here are five actions he suggests to help create and enforce your company’s social marketing code of conduct:

Action #1. Work closely with legal and PR teams

Your marketing needs to be transparent and honest with the public. Recent history is loaded with examples of companies whose social marketing ran afoul of public sentiment, such as Wal-Mart's staged blogs in 2006 and Motrin's baby-wearing commercial in 2008 (see links below).

Working with your public relations or corporate communications departments will help ensure you are:

o Clearly communicating offers and messages
o Dispelling confusion in the market
o Responding to criticism in the public

On the legal side, your marketing needs to remain ethical to avoid scrutiny. The FTC's guidelines (linked below) have many stipulations, and they're best explained by a lawyer.

The following DuPont departments meet regularly to ensure everyone is following the rules:

o Marketing
o Public and corporate affairs
o Legal
o IT
o Privacy

The meetings allow the team to agree on executions that meet business goals, while upholding legal and public responsibilities.

"We all collaborate formally. We have regular sessions where we're speaking specifically about social media and word-of-mouth marketing.”

Action #2. Circulate and publish policy documents

Spangler helps develop DuPont's guidelines around social media and word-of-mouth marketing. Once they have a set of documents together, his team shares them with the rest of the company.

"We have an intranet website on social media which is part of our e-marketing communication. That's where we put training materials and educational materials,” Spangler says.

- Share documents with the public

You can also publish documents, such privacy policies, to make your team's commitment to ethics more transparent.

DuPont also publishes a "core values" document on its website for the benefit of investors, employees and the public. The corporate statement emphasizes integrity and high ethical standards in all areas of DuPont's business (see links below).

Action #3. Authorize and monitor social marketing

DuPont has tens of thousands of employees, but not everyone is authorized to speak for the company. Before an employee can engage in social media, the team ensures the person has:

o Training
o Experience
o Authorization for specific channels
o Authorization for specific types of messaging

"If you're not looking at what employees have been authorized to represent [regarding] the company on these social media sites, you can lose visibility pretty quickly about what's being talked about,” says DuPont.

Spangler's team focuses more on authorization and auditing than they do on constant monitoring. Audits report performance, activity, and adherence to company guidelines to ensure social marketers are hitting their goals.

"People authorized to represent DuPont in social media have freedom to engage without constant approvals,” he says.

- Resources required

Before giving the green light to employees, the team ensures the person also has the means to effectively use the channel. Blogging, for example, requires writing ability and spare time. Hosting a YouTube channel requires a repository of videos or the means to create one.

Action #4. Require partners to follow your policies

Your reputation is only as strong as those you work with, so make sure your marketing partners are adhering to the same policies and rules as your in-house team. Before you work with a company, ask for references from past partners and ask them about their policies on transparency and ethics.

"You can kind of know if a company gets it or not,” Spangler says.

Spangler's team has a thorough approval process through which all partners must pass. They also include language in their agreements saying the companies must at least understand and abide by WOMMA's code of ethics (see links below), even if they're not members.

Action #5. Monitor industry news

Missteps, such as Wal-Mart's and Motrin's cited above, are recurring themes in marketing news.

Monitoring industry news helps you learn from others' mistakes and successes. These PR disasters are examples of what can happen if your team loses sight of ethics. They also show which tactics can really upset the public.

Also, regularly check the websites of the FTC, WOMMA and regulatory organizations specific to your industry. Doing so will keep you on top of impending or recent changes to laws and public expectations.

Useful links related to this article

FTC's New Endorsement Guidelines: 6 Key Areas to Examine

New York Times: Moms and Motrin

MediaPost: Pro-Wal-Mart Travel Blog Screeches to a Halt

Federal Trade Commission: Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising

WOMMA Ethics Code

DuPont Core Values

DuPont Privacy Statement


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