Say What? 3 Elements of an Effective Social Governance Policy

It’s easy to make a misstep on social media. But with a smart set of governance rules, you can develop an authentic brand voice that engages and delights.

By Eric Goodstadt

When you use social media, is it doing what you hope for your organization? Most associations (and companies) just use social media to distribute their news—fostering a lot of one-way “conversations.”

Ultimately, you want a social spark to set fire to a discussion, one that raises your profile within your industry while also attracting new members and allies into your digital ecosystem. Yet brands often find their dialogues are mostly one-sided or fall flat. The culprit? Often it’s the lack of a clear social strategy.

Every association has a personality; you might even have a highly defined brand voice and tone. You need to personify that in your social engagements. While spontaneity has its virtues, however, it can also become a trap that your organization easily falls into.

That’s where social governance comes in. And it does matter; if you’re not sure, then check out this Inc. list of 2019 social fails. It’s good for a laugh or two, but I suggest you read it again and imagine the steps that led to those posts seeing digital daylight. Really, they’re more akin to horror stories, a repeating tale of social teams working without reasonable limits.

You do not want that to be your brand’s story.

The Expectation? You Have a POV

Fortunately, there are positive examples of associations striking the right social tenor—like the American Nurses Association, which has found ways to mobilize members and jump cleverly into social moments that resonate with its audience. But what about your organization?

For starters, your members expect you to speak up on topics that make sense for your association to have a point of view about. According to a 2018 WE study, 74 percent of consumers say they look to brands to take a stance on social issues—and, naturally, an association’s advocacy work comes with taking stances.

How do you make enough room for an engagement-minded brand voice without constantly breaking a sweat every time you reload Twitter?

The answer is a governance policy that defines basic parameters for playing on social media: when to respond, what to say, what not to say, when to triage, when to disengage, and whom to tap if you need to escalate the conversation (maybe even when to call in the legal team).

The Elements of Good Social Governance

Here are a few elements that are necessary for building a solid governance plan.

Voice and persona. You might find the Wendy’s Twitter account impressive, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right persona for your association. Even so, there’s plenty of room to build comparable success with a tone and approach that’s all your own.

Amy Linert, Manifest’s Director of Audience Engagement, explains that setting broad voice parameters that an association’s staff can work within helps ensure authenticity and consistency. And, she adds, worry less about massive viral moments and more about a rolling approach that suits your audience.

“If you don’t have a campaign in place that kicks in as soon as that viral moment starts to wane, you can’t convert it back to your objective,” Linert says.

You will want to derive your parameters from an analysis of your current community and brand sentiment, as well as broader sentiment on topics of relevance to your association. If sustainability is a focus of yours, for example, you should research sustainability discussions online.

Rules of engagement. There are two main rules for when you should interact and speak up:

  1. Identify the conversations that matter most to your association. These are the topics and themes that will drive social activity—areas where you always want to be part of the action.
  2. Find new opportunities for your association to engage. This list might be more forward-looking, and it also might have caveats, such as “we’ll insert our brand when the subject is X as long as organizations Y and Z aren’t involved.” Go back to your mission, your messaging strategy, your advocacy positions, and your goals to guide you.

Adding a list of approved whitelisted topics for your social accounts also will help on both fronts.

But there’s also a caution zone for topics that you should keep an eye on but not engage in unless necessary. “These are conversations that you don’t want to be part of, but you know you might be called into,” Linert says.

To help manage your social engagement strategy, build a listening dashboard to keep tabs on the dynamic of conversations happening across platforms and channels. Then you will know where it’s safe to step in and when to step back.

Escalation policy. What if something happens and you need to respond (think coronavirus)—or you face a backlash? That’s when you turn to your escalation policy. It’s a list of players across four to six levels of your organization, and potentially partner organizations, who can help decide wording, response, or whether to react at all. The policy should define when to go up the chain of command for a ruling on further engagements.

Combined, these three elements will help you perfect your social communications and avoid pitfalls that can shake brand reputation. But here’s an important caveat: A good social governance policy is a living document.

It needs to be a frequently cited resource that helps you navigate the fast-moving world of social media. You should update it at least twice a year and any time new campaigns require strategic shifts.

After all, you don’t want to become the next viral moment because of a social gaffe. But you do want to be part of conversations that matter to both your organization and your members.

Eric Goodstadt, president of Manifest, has more than two decades of experience in the agency world, serving clients in diverse sectors—including associations, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies.

(Ralf Geithe/Getty Images)