The Rationale for a Social Media Policy
For all its virtues as a tool to connect with membership and advocate for the association, social media can be a double-edged sword for association board members if not used correctly. Consider this nightmare scenario: a board member tweeted praise for a speaker — and the event in general — during a conference session. A member, who attended the same session, didn’t feel the same way. She replied to the board member’s tweet saying she thought the session was terrible. Rather than either not responding or tweeting something like, “Sorry you feel that way, but I thought it was great,” the board member responded by tweeting an insult back at the member and a Twitter war erupted. To make matters worse, most members who were following the conversation agreed with the responder and not the board member, creating a poor reflection of the board member and a public relations problem for the association.

This is just one admittedly extreme example of how social media can be a negative for board members and associations. It’s precisely the reason why attorney Paula Goedert, partner at Barnes & Thornburg, recommends that association boards adopt a social media policy.

The Badge is Always On

When they speak about association or industry-related topics, board members are speaking on behalf of the association. “There's a saying in the association world, ‘the badge is always on,’” said Goedert. “And the badge is always on when the board members are on social media, too. So, when you have board members out there on social media making statements, the public will naturally attribute them to the organization.” If, for example, a board member posts something negative about a politician or regulation related to the industry, it could be seen as the viewpoint of the association when it might not be. Thus, board members must be extremely cautious when it comes to posting anything directly or tangentially related to the association or industry, or anything that could be deemed controversial.

What to Include in Policy

While policies will differ depending on the association, Goedert recommends one that requires a vetting process for all board members’ posts related to their association space. The board should consider appointing someone on staff to review all social media posts before they go out, she said. Even a seemingly innocuous post promoting a new initiative should be vetted because the communication staff may not be ready to announce it yet, or it may require further research or work. The vetting process would even apply to live tweeting from a conference, for the reasons previously outlined. Some associations may consider appointing a communications professional to write up the posts first and then send them to board members to post from their personal accounts. The association policy would not apply to personal posts, of course. Board members can still post about their kids or grandkids, their favorite spaghetti recipe, or their daughter’s basketball team.

Goedert acknowledges that some associations will be less restrictive than others about what they permit their board members to post, so the constraints of the policy are up to the individual board. Boards should work with legal counsel and staff to construct a social media policy that works for them. Once in place, the policy should also be reviewed at least once a year by the board to make sure all members understand it. Further, the board or a committee should review it every few years to ensure that it stays current based on changes to social media. “Communications is a profession and counting on inexperienced board members to handle delicate situations exactly right can lead to missteps,” said Goedert.
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