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4.2 Policy 

Many universities have social media policies and they vary considerably in their approach – possibly as a consequence of the fact that different universities have given different central departments responsibility for this area. Unsurprisingly, most policies stem from departments responsible for marketing, communications and external relations; however, a significant number have been developed by human resources departments; other departmental homes for such policies include information services. 

McNeill (2012) notes this phenomenon and expresses concern that HR departments are deemed to have the expertise to devise such policies; going on to say:

    “However HR departments are generally the originating source for disciplinary policies and, as such, tend to contextualise social media use in terms of potential misconduct. There’s a stress in the policies emanating from HR departments, therefore, on compliance and on managerial structures.”
This does appear to be true but to frame this purely in terms of a debate around academic freedom would be overly simplistic. Universities employ a wide-ranging body of staff many of whom have legitimate reasons to use social media in support of their professional practice. In other cases, however, staff may spend an excessive amount of work time on social media activity that is not work-related, post on social media about throwing a sickie in order to have a day off, or (where staff have pastoral care responsibilities) exhibit behaviours that would seem incompatible with the care of young people. Feigning illness is an example where the employer can clearly challenge the behaviour rather than the use of social media; other examples where the employee is expressing views with which the institution would not wish to be associated may be less clear cut.

The role of policy as an enabler versus a means to deal with misconduct therefore needs to be carefully thought through. It is worth considering whether your institution ought to indicate the level of social media activity you might expect a particular job role to entail – a spectrum might range from neutral (not expected to participate on behalf of the business) through to encouraged (not a requirement but can be beneficial and guidance available) to expected (a normal part of the role). 

Smithers (2012) makes the case that HEIs need social media policies that reflect their goals of knowledge creation and dissemination and suggests that an overcautious emphasis on reputation management is actually leading to missed opportunities. He believes that better use of social media for inter-institutional collaboration would actually lead to increased research and teaching opportunities. He also references a situation where a Learning Management System (LMS) vendor noted that one university client would not be deploying the social media components available in the new release of the system because this contravened their social media policy and suggests this is an example where an ill-conceived reputation management strategy is actually having an adverse impact on pedagogy.

The message here for policy-makers is the need to ensure that policies act as enablers to delivering the benefits of social media as well as effectively managing the risks. It may be a good idea to frame the policy to be as much about institutional values as about rules.
The following guidance applies whether you have an existing policy or are developing one for the first time.


Good practice tips:

  • Offer guidance for all stakeholders – establish whether you have a need for a specific social media policy. If you decide this is not a policy matter ensure that you do at least offer clear guidance to staff and students (for the rest of this section the term policy refers equally to any other form of guidance materials).

  • Responsiveness – recognise that this is a fast-moving area and ensure that the policy is reviewed regularly.

  • Ownership – involve a range of stakeholders in drawing up/reviewing the policy in order to gain buy-in and help determine what is reasonable in different contexts (bearing in mind that different departments may have different cultures within a single university).

  • A value-driven approach – focus the policy around your institutional values and the behaviours you wish to promote.

  • Identify requirements according to role – indicate to staff the level of social media activity you might expect their particular job role to entail.

  • Offer clarity on the following issues (this Toolkit offers guidance to help you in taking decisions on most of these areas, you may choose to have separate staff and student policies):

     - any prior approval needed to set up any social media channels for institutional purposes;
    - any requirements with regard to institutional branding;
    - any related policies that users need to be aware of e.g. IT acceptable use policy;
    - related policy/guidance on areas such as IT Security and esafety;
    - staff/student disciplinary procedures to be invoked should the policy be breached;
    - social media channels that fall within the scope of the policy;
    - any disclaimers needed by staff/students who identify a relationship with the institution
    - in social media channels that fall outside the scope of the policy;
    - the procedure for reporting inappropriate content on institution-related social media channels;
    - the procedure for dealing with inappropriate content on institution-related social media channels;
    - any specific requirements in relation to engaging with younger or vulnerable learners.

  • Appropriate communication – communicate the policy and offer additional guidance and training where needed. As the UCISA Model regulations state: “If you want the regulations to go beyond laying out what is and is not acceptable, and actually influence the behaviour of users, then you should embed them in some form of educational process. Simply making them available and drawing users’ attention to them (even by click to accept) is unlikely to make much difference in practice

Additional resources

  • Jisc has produced an excellent policy template for developing a staff social media policy that covers a range of different approaches.
  • The Information Commissioner’s Office has a very brief social media policy that is heavily focused on
    objectives and principles.

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