Does a Social Media Policy for Employees Apply to Contractors?

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A freelance writer tweeting about the Boston Marathon may be finding out the hard way

A couple of popular running magazines learned a valuable lesson this week about the limitations and importance of a social media policy for employees and how it relates to contractors. During the Boston Marathon, freelance writer Jon Gugala got himself into hot water when he Tweeted comments that some people found offensive. Because he identified himself in his Twitter bio as a freelance writer for Runners World and Running Times, among others, the two publications had a public relations situation to handle.

Gugala’s tweets (which many Twitter users felt were sexist) caused an uproar. Runners World and Running Times received messages demanding that they drop him as a freelancer. Both Runners World and Running Times tweeted messages saying that he Gulaga wasn’t tweeting on their behalf and that they don’t “condone” his tweets. Gulaga has since changed his Twitter bio, so that it no longer mentions any publications.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity?

Personally, I thought it was much ado about not very much, as his comments about men were also a bit over the top and, apparently, his reputation is as a sarcastic and sometimes irreverent writer. But he responded to the backlash very badly and tweeted some reactive retorts that just sunk him in deeper. He came off looking like a petulant child, and the publications he writes for got some bad brand association.

Runners World and Running Times moved quickly to stem the damage, and it’s unlikely that Gugala inflicted any lasting harm on anyone but himself, although his instant increase in Twitter followers may point toward the very opposite.

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So what should a company do about casual freelancers or contractors who identify themselves as such in their social media profiles? Ideally a company’s social media policy covers both employees and contractors, but there’s not much a company can do when it comes to sanctions or employment action against a casual contractor, aside from not doing business with them anymore.

But in terms of prevention, this story makes the case that every contractor should read and sign the company’s social media policy. A company that deals with freelancers and contractors on a regular basis could certainly include a section in their social media policy that deals with identification of the company and brand in social media profiles.

Disassociation

Should they prohibit contractors from mentioning the company? It sounds logical, but what about all the positive interaction and community association that comes with good social media communication associated with the brand? It defeats the very purpose of engaging in social media, especially in the case of journalists, if you stifle the voices of your brand. Like it or not, someone who writes for a publication, whether on staff or not, becomes a part of the voice of the brand.

Making better choices when hiring freelancers might mitigate some of the risks, but might also dampen the spirit and personality that a publisher might want to harness from its writers. Hire only staid, conservative writers who wouldn’t dare make comments on social media forums that may be construed as offensive; watch your publication wither and die.

An easy lesson to take away from the Gugala debacle may be simply that before using any freelancer or contractor, talk to them about your expectations around social media and your requirement that if they identify with your brand, they use good judgment when making public comments. Decide whether or not you want to associate your brand with their “brand” and, if not, make that clear in writing.

As with so many aspects of the employee-employer relationship, clear communication of expectations can prevent nasty surprises for everyone.

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Article Published April 19, 2012

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