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Social-media policies aim to balance brand image, employee individuality

Social-media policies aim to balance brand image, employee individuality

As more restaurant employees blog, tweet and post photos, videos and updates on the Internet, operators are rushing to craft policies guiding their behavior in cyberspace.

The goal is to establish rules that harness the power of social media as a branding tool and avert public relations disasters through codes of conduct that are formal but not too overbearing, say operators who have worked on such documents.

“The reality is it’s happening with or without us,” said Rodney Morris, senior vice president of human resources for Raising Cane’s. “Our choice is to embrace social media.”

Noting that many crewmembers for the 82-unit, Baton Rouge, La.-based chicken finger concept fall into the tech-savvy 16- to 24-year-old age group, Raising Cane’s is working with an attorney to finalize social media guidelines that both allow employees the opportunity to be themselves online and protect the brand.

“It’s not all about, ‘Do this and don’t do that,’” Morris said. “You have to consider the age group we work with. It’s OK to be you. The company wants you to be able to be unique and identify with others and not control every thing you say.”

Among the major points outlined in Raising Cane’s guidelines are for employees engaging in social media to be transparent, using a real name and being clear about their roles at the quick-service chain. The guidelines remind employees that all such content is public, that perception is reality and that they need to protect confidential information.

Most important, the guidelines remind: “If you’re about to publish something that makes you even the slightest bit uncomfortable, don’t shrug it off and hit ‘send.’ Take a minute to review these guidelines and try to figure out what’s bothering you, then fix it.”

Such policies should be strong and regularly reviewed to keep up with evolving technologies, said Kat Cole, vice president of training and development for Atlanta-based Hooters of America Inc., noting that the 450-unit casual-dining brand has had social media guidelines in place for a few years.

“If you typically review your policy twice a year, then do it quarterly,” she said. “You need almost constant discussions because new technologies are always coming out.”

Hooters created a an off-duty conduct policy that addresses how the company will respond to all employee behavior that is disparaging to the brand or disrupts the smooth flow of business, Cole said. The policy makes it clear that employees are expected to govern themselves with respect and exhibit respect for colleagues and the brand whether they are on or off the clock.

“I’ve talked to a few [operators] who don’t think they can have an off-duty policy,” Cole said. “I remember being trained that you only have control when [employees] are at work, where you pay them and have a say over what they do. But that’s not true. If they are disparaging the brand you can make the case it causes conflict, disruption or makes it hard on the business.”

Admittedly, Cole noted, there are gray areas concerning incidents involving Facebook and Twitter, which is why it’s important to have the counsel of a good attorney.

“It would be difficult to alter behavior with any policy,” she said. “The bigger gain we saw was helping managers gain clarity on how to interact,” especially in situations where the brand is disparaged.

Before developing a social media policy, employers need to decide whether they want to encourage or stem their employees’ enthusiasm for the medium, said Teresa Tracy, principal at Gladstone Michel Weisberg Willner & Sloane in Los Angeles.

If employees are tweeting, texting or using cell phones during work hours and that is prohibited, then one type of policy is needed, Tracy said. If employers want their employees to promote the business through social media, then another sort of policy is needed.

“A lot of it is common sense,” Tracy said. “A surprising number of people don’t have common sense. I do not know any other way to put it. Sometimes they need to be reminded of what common sense is.”

Cole said that she keeps a close eye on what employees post and that she is not always pleased with what she sees. Nonetheless, she said she appreciates that employee blogs and posts can have the positive effect of helping to recruit potential employees and building on feelings of good will from patrons.

“They share some things I wish were not there,” Cole said. “But it’s real. I think people get that when they read blogs and websites. They get it, and in general they are quite forgiving.”

Peter Merholz, president and founding partner of Adaptive Path, an experience strategy and design firm in San Francisco, noted that a lot of problems could be avoided by hiring people who are trustworthy and embody what your brand and company stand for.

In addition, he said, companies that engage in social media need to give up a certain amount of control.

“In order to succeed in this new world, you have to cede some of that control,” Merholz said. “If you do it intelligently, you will realize immense gains that would not be available to you when you control the message from the top down.”

That’s the way officials at Sodexo Inc., the Gaithersburg, Md.-based contract management company, view social media.

“From a communication management perspective, we encourage our employees to engage in social media—they provide a great way to extend the reach of public relations for Sodexo,” said Jaya K. Bohlmann, Sodexo’s vice president of public relations. “We also want them to do it well and be aware of the risks they might encounter. It’s a brand new world out there—full of opportunity. We’re continually exploring all the ways we can fully leverage these opportunities.”— [email protected]

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