Province of Ontario’s social media policy evolves

Social media is like any other tool in a company’s marketing arsenal: It can bolster brand awareness, improve engagement with customers and ultimately translate into increased market share, but it can also trigger a public relations nightmare when companies jump in without a well thought-out strategy.

Just ask New York fashion designer Kenneth Cole who infamously tied the turmoil in Cairo, Egypt earlier this year to the launch of his new spring collection via Twitter.

“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at -KC.”

The post prompted a barrage of angry comments from critics to which Cole responded with an apology, but the damage was done.

Organizations anxious to leverage the power of this brave new world are flocking to social media sites in record numbers. A recent survey from Regus, a global provider of flexible workplace solutions, indicates that almost 70 per cent of Canadian businesses say social media is playing a bigger role in their marketing strategy, and close to half of Canadian businesses surveyed said they use Web sites such as Twitter to engage, connect with and inform customers. Canadian companies are also investing resources and dollars in the social media efforts according to the survey: More than 40 per cent dedicate up to one-fifth of their marketing budgets to social networking activities.

How times have changed. Just two years ago, less than 20 per cent of CIOs surveyed by Robert Half Technology said they allowed employees to access social media sites – for business purposes – during work hours. Today, however, half of the more than 1,400 CIO’s surveyed indicated they allow employees to utilize social media venues like Facebook and Twitter while on the clock – as long as it is work-related.

Public tweets
Four years after the government of Ontario banned all employees, including politicians, from accessing FaceBook on their corporate computers, it’s seeing things in a slightly different light. The province has had some success in leveraging social media to better connect with its citizens, according to Samantha Liscio, the government of Ontario’s Corporate Chief Strategist. It recognizes that social media tools are a key piece of being a modern and digital organization, and it’s “trying to catch up” and figure out the best path forward. She’s content, however, to play the role of follower, not leader, given the potential security risks for a government – even if employees can’t appreciate the rationale behind that decision.

“There are a couple of different sites – FaceBook and YouTube – we block, and that’s been in place for a couple of years. The main reason is we need to better understand how we can use those tools effectively and appropriately,” says Liscio.

She understands there’s a legitimate requirement for the use of social media in government, and cites Foodland Ontario’s use of Twitter to promote Ontario food products as an example.

“This enables Foodland Ontario to reach a much broader audience than they would simply by networking,” she says.

Who’s driving the policy bus?

For Ontario, creating a policy to help govern employee use of the sites was job one. In the past, Liscio admits, there were more than a few incidents with people creating blogs and using those forums to post derogatory comments on specific individuals. She says she also had to consider the various “what if” scenarios and the risks they posed to both the government and citizens.

“For example, if a ministry had created a Web site around health and wellness for teenagers, and some teenager posted something in the comments about being depressed and considering harming themselves, what obligation does the government have to act? We haven’t figured it out. It’s difficult to put any policy framework around that.”

Liscio is facilitating broad-based consultation across policy makers, ministries, communications departments and IT communities to better understand their needs vis-à-vis social media, and also to educate them on the lessons learned from the research she and her team have done to date as well as the experience of early adopters in the government.

“We don’t want to be too prescriptive about use,” she insists. When technology is used as a gatekeeper, we’re making a statement that we’re treating some aspects of social media in the same way we would gambling sites. That’s the wrong approach. There are legitimate reasons for using those tools and we need to move in that direction.”

The government’s current policy governs acceptable use of publicly available social media sites, but Liscio expects the policy will continue to evolve over time as the boundary between work and personal lives becomes more blurred.

As far as the government’s collaboration strategy goes, Liscio says they’re not betting the farm on popular sites such as FaceBook, Linked In and Twitter, but instead have developed internal tools that function in much the same way to facilitate internal collaboration.

“We have emulated social media tools by developing homegrown solutions based on open source software,” says Liscio. OPSpedia, for example, is an internal social media space where employees can blog, collaborate and exchange ideas using tools such as MediaWiki and BuddyPress. It’s been developed with very little budget and to date, about 7000 active users registered, a figure that represents 10 per cent of the Ontario government’s workforce. In the past month, OPSedia had about 34,500 unique visitors, which is far more than most government of Ontario public-facing sites that receive less than 300 unique visitors each month.

At the intersection of control and enablement

Perhaps not since the advent of the Internet have CIOs been faced with the kind of challenge social media poses: Platforms such as Twitter distort the line between public and private, and IT leaders often find themselves on the side of mitigating risk instead of enabling their enterprises.

That intersection makes it difficult to effect control, but as part of the executive team, CIOs can play the role of educator, says Nabil Harfoush, VP of Corporate Development with HelpCaster Technologies, a Toronto-based technology company that provides Web-based platforms an organization can use to interact with its customers.

“The main downside is the risk that we are going to show the outside world a very incoherent picture of who we are and what our values are,” says Harfoush. “Some CIOs are pushed into the role and they’re unprepared. The enlightened ones educate management and employees about the potential of social media, best practices, and so on.”

To bridge the chasm between IT control and communications freedom, the BC government appointed Tanya Twynstra as the province’s director of citizen engagement. Twynstra worked closely with the government’s CIO office to co-create a policy that effectively addresses risk and privacy as well as ongoing records management.

“The policy addresses how employees are entrusted to use social media, but they need to plan for its use, and in that planning phase, there’s support available,” she says.

Twynstra’s department is charged with the task of facilitating social media initiatives inside the BC government, so for each new project initiated by a department, there’s a formal process to assess the value and risk of the project – a process that includes both privacy reviews and audience analysis.

“This is never about starting a FaceBook page or a Twitter account,” she cautions. “We begin by asking them what they’re trying to accomplish in terms of engaging. We walk them through a series of questions to figure out which tool is appropriate.” Often, she adds, social media is not the best avenue to achieving their goals.

“It could be surveys, face-to-face meetings, social media or whatever. Social media is a tool in the arsenal and there has to be a true businesses need to do it.”

Communication leaders, not IT, should drive policy on social media, insists Donna Papacosta, who runs Toronto-based Trafalgar Communications, a consultancy that helps companies navigate the social media landscape. She argues that the success of social media efforts hinges on the company’s ability to effectively tell its story, and it’s not the IT leaders who have expertise.

“Imagine if years ago the supply centre said you can’t publish this newsletter every month because we don’t have enough people – it doesn’t make sense,” she says.

Channel changers are game changers

Tim Hickernell, a senior analyst with Info-Tech Research Group in London, ON, points out that social media is no different than any other “channel” companies use to communicate with their customers and business partners, and that it doesn’t necessarily require a wholesale rewrite of an existing policy on acceptable use, but rather an update to reflect the new media.

“We’ve been recommending that policies get back to the basics regarding employees representing the company in the public domain,” he says. “It’s a good time for companies to retrain employees on what they can and can’t do in the public domain.”

The role for IT leaders, he says, is in educating stakeholders as to the potential risks, but they should work with the marketing and public relations departments who are driving this initiative.

“Three or four years ago, this started out as an IT conversation, but it quickly became a marketing-dominated area, and now we’re seeing more non-IT executives involved,” adds Hickernell, saying the research firm is receiving an unprecedented number of advice calls on social media from executives in non-IT roles.

Hickernell says the companies that will reap biggest dividends with social media are those who have integrated social media platforms with their CRM software,

“You have to mine that social media cloud for service opportunities,” he says. “That’s biggest mistake companies make.”

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