Ralph Waldo Emerson is often quoted as saying, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." While he was referring to a foolish consistency, note that a smart consistency is something to keep and cherish. This is why developing a social media and Internet policy is important for your company.

Create a social media and Internet policy to protect your company when employees communicate online.

The Internet and social media offer new powers of communication for building customer relationships, doing business with suppliers and distributors, marketing, branding and customer service. Online communications are intimately connected with a company's brand. However, they also offer a chance to confuse, misinform and create untold amounts of trouble. This is particularly true for middle market companies, which usually have brand awareness and enough people paying attention that a mishap won't go unnoticed. However, such a business may not have the same resources, such as dedicated online specialists, as a large corporation. That means depending on employees who may not know how to handle themselves online.

Avoiding Online Embarrassment

Embarrassment is easy to generate. Despite their budgets and resources, even Fortune 500 companies can easily find themselves on the wrong side of a gaffe. In 2014, before its merger with American Airlines became final, US Airways received a complaint on Twitter from someone writing that the airline ruined a spring break vacation and that he or she wanted "some free stuff," according to USA Today. US Airways reportedly tweeted back a pornographic image. That's not the impression you want an employee to transmit on behalf of your company!

There are many more potential problems that could arise if someone at your company stumbles online, such as:

  • Someone might misrepresent the brand values because they haven't been told them.
  • An unwise response to a customer could lead to an ongoing perception of bad service.
  • Unqualified employees might offer suggestions on products they don't understand.
  • Misuse of social media conventions could generate controversy and bad public relations.
  • A worker might inadvertently say something that could invite regulatory inquiry or possible litigation.

To put it simply, there are things you want to say and avoid online. That means all employees who could officially represent the company should do the same. Set guidelines are more necessary at a middle market company than a large one because there is a greater chance your online representatives have other jobs within the company.

That's not to suggest that your consistency edges into foolishness. For example, you might have employees writing blog posts as part of your social media strategy and content marketing. This can work because you're giving a voice to real people in your company. Stultify them and the result could be bland corporate utterances that will likely push customers away.

Review the Guidelines

Similarly, conditions change at any company. Product lines are developed, acquired or sold off. Strategic decisions require changes in marketing or customer management. New or modified regulations affect what companies may safely say or how they have to do business. Growth will likely mean acknowledging new audiences as well as managing a more complex organization. Communications, including online, will have to accommodate periodic fluctuations or modifications. That means taking some steps to ensure that your social media and Internet policy moves with the company, such as:

  • Set review points for your policy. Every strategic decision or response to a new regulatory development should include a review of your Internet policy.
  • Make retraining an automatic part of any policy changes. Adapting or modifying your practices won't matter if you don't get all employees to follow them. Don't trust to a memo; instead, walk people through what they need to know.
  • Keep the policy as simple as possible. The more details you add, the more frequently you will have to modify it. This opens you up to more chances for something to go wrong.
  • Check communications for policy adherence. Even when people mean well, there will be times when someone says the wrong thing online. You'll want to catch mistakes and correct practices to reduce recurring issues.

Social media and online content provide great benefits, but you need to steer clear of the potential embarrassment of an ill-chosen post or reaction to an event. Create an Internet policy and guidelines that help employees find where they can be most useful, and then outline what they should avoid.

Where has your company seen the need for better control over online communications? How have you adapted your Internet policy for changing conditions? Tell us by commenting below.

Erik Sherman is an NCMM contributor and author whose work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, the Financial Times, Chief Executive, Inc. and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch. Sherman has extensive experience in corporate communications consulting and is the author or co-author of 10 books. Follow him on Twitter.