Social Media Policy Basics and Resources

We have policy for everything else – surely there’s one for our online/social media communications…right?
by Vance Morton* and United Methodist Communications**
With so many people interacting online through social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pintrest, etc., so forth and so on) more and more churches have begun to develop their own social media presence and brand. Social media offers a great way to expand your role and your churches message and presence into the online world, but it also can open you up to a new level of risk if you and those who post, status update, tweet, whatever on your behalf are not prepared. It’s like the old proverb says (though I don’t believe it’s actually found in the book of Proverbs), “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” The need to protect you and your church while encouraging online interactions is vital.
Usually the entrance into social media for a church happens through the interaction of its members and then maybe someone creates an ‘official fan page.’  But quickly (and informally), many churches and nonprofits have found themselves expanding and creating online content, without creating a full vision of how they wish to use and maintain their social media presence. The conversations being had in cyberspace by you, for you and about you will determine your brand identity as a church much faster than anything we’ve ever seen (even a catered fellowship dinner and movie night can’t carry the buzz that social media can).
Not only does your church have to protect and promote its identity, its employees and online buzz, you have to consider one more area: your congregation. And it is that category that can be the most difficult because you don’t have total control. Instead you can recommend and encourage by communicating to members both in voice and in words.

So how do you go about pulling together an online communications policy and, perhaps more importantly, how do you communicate it out? Well the first thing to do is to pull yourself away from your PCs and smartphones and have a good old-fashioned sit down to actually figure out what you want the online direction of your congregation to be.

Pull together a team of no more than eight people to discuss and set a policy or guidelines. Involve staff, volunteer leaders and congregation. You can ask for more opinions, but a smaller group is more manageable to accomplishing the ultimate task of writing a policy.

Some churches may want to begin the discussion by identifying how restrictive or open the church wants its policy to be. Of course, remember no single policy will ensure everything said online is exactly what the church wants.

Ask how the church is using or wants to use social media. What purpose does Twittering serve in the church community? Who in your congregation uses social media? Should the church “friend” everyone on Facebook even if you don’t know the person?

Recognize everyone has a voice. Because staff is compensated and leaders who volunteer agree to follow the church’s policies, you can have more control of what they say and how they interact. But how should staff communicate about church topics on official church-sponsored accounts versus their personal social media sites? You may want to provide them a disclosure statement that details their opinions are not necessarily that of the church. Make sure it’s the same statement for everyone and everyone publishes the statement appropriately.

Identify off-limit discussions. While everyone knows that ministers shouldn’t share what a member tells them privately, what about others who may know private information? Make it clear what topics, activities, etc., are considered private and should not be discussed anywhere – especially on the globally public Internet. Also, list any discussion topics that should not be started or encouraged by church staff.

Consider minor interaction. Youth present one of the bigger challenges in social media policies. They are typically the most frequent users, yet they are minors who must be protected. Facebook and other social sites offer great opportunities to interact with youth. Do you require parental permission before “accepting” them as friends into the church’s various groups? Do you disclose that any information shared by the youth could be reported to their parents?

The Catholic Diocese in Phoenix proposed one of the most prohibitive policies regarding youth technological interaction. Its policy banned employees from using personal e-mail, cell or other communication devices to communicate with minors involved in church activities. For many churches, such a policy would be too restrictive. What policies should be in place to protect everyone but don’t deter interaction to the point where no one “talks” online?

Determine responsibility. Who can create Facebook pages on behalf of the church, its groups and its activities? Who manages those accounts? Will these groups be open to all or require approval from the designated account manager?

Use security settings.  In many social media sites, your church can opt to create private groups or accounts. Only those who are invited to join would know about the site. That way you can limit access and have better control of who is in the room. If you do opt for a public account, consider requiring users to be “accepted” by your designated administrator before they can join the group or discussion.

Boil it down. You won’t be able to account for every scenario in your online communication policy. Plan to revisit it every few months to ensure it is keeping up with technological advances and implementation glitches.

Remember what your mama taught you. Social media use all comes down to personal responsibility and common sense.  So the golden rule and the “if you don’t have anything nice to say…” school of thought can serve you well. Or, as PR executive Brad McCormick said in a recent BusinessWeek article about how he cautions his staff about their online communication: "Don't say anything you wouldn't say to your mom."
Here is a good template that bubbled up during some trolling across the interwebernet that you could use to help draft your policy (though some of the language is pretty corporate, so you might want to dial it down a little and/or add some verbiage regarding prayer, etc.) Click here for the social media policy template.
The corporate world also offers excellent references for developing an online communication policy for your church. Businesses use these written guidelines to affect their corporate identity, their employees’ identities and their online community buzz. Check out Dell’s policy, frequently cited as an excellent example, at Here are some other resources that seem to be handy:
Of course you can always just Google up “social media policies” for many, many more examples and guidelines from corporate America.
If you have questions, comments or other tips to share, please contact CTC_Communications and we’ll try to help and/or post up your thoughts in an upcoming post in this series. Speaking of this series, given the amount of Twitter-traffic coming from General Conference (twitter hashtag #GC2012) and as we prepare to employ that micro-blogging miracle at Annual Conference in June (#CTCAC2012), it feels like a good time to get our Tweet on and discuss some Twitter tips.
*Vance is the Director of Communications & IT for the Central Texas Conference.
**United Methodist Communications is the official communications arm of the United Methodist Church.