Mike Cherenson recently told me about a question he was asked during a visit to PRSA’s Dallas Chapter. It’s a question that many organizations are struggling with these days: “Should public relations professionals be allowed to access social media Web sites at work?
The answer seems obvious: Public relations professionals need liberal access to the Internet if they are going to leverage tools like Facebook and Twitter to engage audiences and build relationships. But stepping back for a moment — and into our role as counselors to management — it becomes easier to see why IT policies that restrict such access arise.
For organizations of all kinds, employee Internet access raises legitimate concerns about productivity, security and liability. Take productivity. One wag has described the Internet as “the biggest waste of time ever invented.” Pundits created an expression, Cyber Monday, to describe the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday, when employees return to work and use their office’s high-speed Internet connections to start their holiday shopping.
In complicated situations, a one-size-fits-all Internet policy can be appealing to IT administrators, even if they understand that not all employees and functions have identical needs. The focus tends to be on preventing harm, rather than balancing the potential for harm against legitimate workplace needs.
So how do public relations professionals address these challenges inside their organizations?
First, understand and acknowledge the challenges faced by IT Departments in protecting their organizations. Beyond the obvious security threats, multiple employees streaming audio and video concurrently can slow networks to a crawl. And users on sites that provide certain types of content, or that facilitate the violation of copyright, may create liabilities for a company. Recognizing these real dangers will set the stage for open discussions and establish a path toward the achievement of mutual goals.
Second, engage at the right level. Large IT Departments may be staffed by a variety of employees with different functions and authorities. To set or change policy, it may be necessary to engage at the senior level with the IT and legal departments, which will bring together individuals with the responsibility and ability to make and amend company policies.
Third, audit your communications strategy with respect to social media. Ensure that your rationale for using social media has moved beyond “just because” and that you have a clearly articulated strategy and plan for engaging social media and measuring the results of those efforts against the organization’s business objectives.
Fourth, make the case. Today, social media is an integral part of the public relations tool kit. Explain how social media fit into the overall communications strategy for the organization. Show how your competitors are using tools such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Although different facts may be needed to make the case in different organizations, we’ve started making the case for you – reasons why public relations professionals need liberal Internet access at work.
Finally, work collaboratively to create policies. With so much at stake, it’s in no one’s interest for Internet gateways to be thrown open based upon implicit understandings. A formal document should be created that sets forth general policies, memorializes why communicators need special access and sets forth any special responsibilities that communicators accrue as a result of having greater Internet access. During this discussion, the question of monitoring may arise; public relations professionals should be open to workstation monitoring by the IT department, to mitigate concerns about security and system abuse.
With the passage of time, IT administrators, legal departments and public relations departments will come to an understanding regarding social media. Vendors will develop new tools that will allow for more “granular” control of workstations, making it easier to customize settings according to an employee’s function and role. But time moves at its own pace — creating an excellent opportunity for public relations professionals to show leadership by engaging internal stakeholders and moving their organizations in new directions.
William Murray is president and COO of PRSA.