Protecting your company's voice online: how to create and implement a social media policy.

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Take one took at the headlines and you'll see that today's digital world is cluttered with a slew of must-have iPhone apps, beta site launches, and the latest - most revealing! - online user data. As a business owner, you're likely wondering how you can tap into the power of social media, and you may have even started a blog or begun experimenting with Twitter. If so, it's possible that you've overlooked one critical component in your social media efforts: a social media policy.

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Whether you employ a staff of four or 4,000, it's probable that they, like you, have adopted emerging Web technologies as a way to engage friends, family and colleagues. And thanks to the easy, 24/7 accessibility of the Internet, dialogue can occur anywhere--in the office, at home, standing in line at the grocery store, or any lime.

Realizing and accepting this shift in communications is the first step toward success.

Acknowledging and addressing new methods of communication is the second step. By implementing guidelines for employees today, smart companies will find themselves ahead of the curve, according to employment services firm Manpower, who reported that only 20 percent of companies worldwide have a formal policy in place regarding employee use of social networking sites (February 2010).

To effectively guide employees--and sharpen the line between professional and personal engagement--a social media policy should be developed and shared with your workforce. Creating such a policy is an important component of your company's online efforts and will help to lay the foundation for all future interactions online. To ensure that you cover all of the bases, consider the below guidelines when crafting your policy.

Define social media. What constitutes as social media in your company? Clearly spell out to your employees which Web sites and applications fall into the "social media" category, and which activities are considered participation.

Take a stance. Now that you've identified what social media is, lay the foundation for your company's and employee's involvement. Tell them what the general approach--or lack thereof--will be, and how it coincides with your overall communication objectives.

Identify a gatekeeper. Choose an individual or a department that will serve as the home base for all social media efforts. Direct employees interested in social media involvement, or aware of current social media usage, to the gatekeeper.

Set...

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