Social Media Governance

Posted by: | April 19, 2012 | Leave a Comment

As part of my continuous learning efforts I am taking a course at UBC Continuing Studies with the title “Social Media Governance” (SMG). This topic is of personal interest to me and at the same time has much relevance for my job. In 2009, I wrote Social Media Guidelines for UBC Graduate Programs as part of the Graduate Recruitment Initiative of the Faculty of Graduate Studies. Since then I have been a member of 2 groups at UBC that discuss social media usage at the university. Part of the discussion is the development of university-wide social media guidelines. UBC started to use a wiki to crowd-source these guidelines which I think was a really smart idea by my colleague Adrian.

Sparked by the discussion in the SMG course I started to think about the terminology that gets used regarding social media. When you check directories such as you can see a variety of terms floating around:

  • policy
  • guidelines
  • best practices
  • handbook
  • terms of use

I wasn’t completely clear on how all these terms relate to each other or maybe even mean the same thing and how it would all fit into the governance structure for social media.

Definitions of terms

The question is if these documents address the same problems or not? How are these approaches different from a governance model? The first observation probably is that many of the terms get used interexchangably and differentiation does not seem to be very precise. In my opinion we should be much more precise though. My understanding for example is that as an employee of a university I am bound by policies whereas I can decide to do things differently than outlined in guidelines, handbooks or best practices. The type of document affects areas such as enforcability, legal implications and responsibilities. Policies seem to be the documents that are most relevant legally. They clearly state what you cannot do. Guidelines, best practices and handbooks in my understanding cover general recommendations and training resources for the professional use of social media for employees. Terms of use instead are standards that define the interaction within channels, but are directed towards the outside of the organization, ie. the audiences such as students. In that sense they define what the expectation is of the other party and how they have to behave in order to have meaningful conversations online.

Governance model

How does governance and a governance model relate to these terms? The SMG course material defines governance as the “strategy to govern how social media can be used by the individual and where/when/how it will be used by the company” (UBC Social Media Course Material, Marty Yaskowich). To me the first key element here is the strategic approach. A strategy means that it is a global, long-term plan of an organization how to achieve its goals, ie. it applies to everyone at UBC and it has to align with UBC’s strategic plan Place & Promise. While a policy deals with what can and cannot be done, the strategy deals with why things are done.

A search for “social media governance model” reveals a couple of other documents like a 2010 post about 5 keys elements of a model (definition of scope, frequency and process for updates, branding guidelines, training & education, approval process and continuity planning) and a 2012 article about 5 components of a governance model (social media policy, training, monitoring, crisis management plan, frequent updates). These resources suggest that the governance model consists of the various elements such as policy, guidelines, best practices or handbooks. Wikipedia has some interesting definitions regarding governance in general. Which brings me to the second key element: someone has to govern. All of the definitions relate this to authority and resources. At universities questions authority are not always easy to answer. Just think about the two main areas at universities:

  1. Administration which covers communications, marketing, recruitment
  2. Academic which covers teaching and learning, expression of thoughts, academic freedom etc.

Not only are these two components often very much separated, but even within each area the organizational structure is often complex with much less authoritative top-down approaches as in corporations. This raises interesting questions such as if separate governance structures are required for administrative and academic purposes or if a single document can deal with all these variations. I am more familiar with the administrative side and will look into that area.

Social Media Policy

One of the first discussions that evolved in the UBC groups was if we actually need a formal policy for social media which is approved by the Board of Governors and listed with the other university policies . To my understanding the community voted against such an approach. One obvious reason for this is that policies take a long time to go through various stages, committees and approvals. Contrary, social media evolves so quickly and changes all the time. With a formal policy the university would actually risk to finally approve something that is already outdated or might inadvertently block certain activities that have not been foreseen when the policy was drafted, but became an issue with new emerging tools or similar. A less formal document instead can be adjusted quickly and still provide guidance to users at the institution. Moreover, several policies already exist that apply to the use of social media, such as policies about privacy of data, appropriate use of technology or intellectual property. Hence, a separate Social Media Policy might not be necessary.

Components of a governance model

A UBC governance model could include

  • Integration into strategic plan: this might be stating the obvious, but the governance model should clearly require alignment of social media use with the goals of the university. Several universities have started to require approval before a unit can create social channels. This might be perceived as overly restricted and creating roadblocks, but it has advantages to it as well. The biggest one is an opportunity to be able to coordinate very large and disparate units that work together in a rather loose network of units. With an approval process you can specifically ask questions that require units to carefully think about what they want to achieve with their social engagement, how it can be supported long-term, how many resources will be required and how it will be funded. Another side benefit is that you can keep track of who is active in the space which has implications for collaboration, referrals etc.
  • Responsibility matrix and governance authority: depending on the institution, this could be tough to figure out. Who or which unit has authority to approve or disapprove certain activities? How will responsibilities between units be shared? How will you even keep track of inquiries coming in through various different networks to different channel owners to avoid wasting resources by providing answers to the same questions again and again?
  • List of relevant UBC policies: this is relatively easy to accomplish by just refering to the existing policies.
  • Best practices and training resources: UBC Continuing Studies provides courses such as the Social Media certificate that can be useful for staff members who will spend a considerable amount of time in social media. But often staff get tasked to deal with social channels on top of a lot of other things with them not necessarily being willing to receive a full certificate. Short workshop style and targeted training sessions will be helpful to train specific skills that are required to be successful in the space. Exchange of best practices during informal gatherings can be effective as well.
  • Team structure: this ties directly into the first point of responsibilities. Coordination of activities requires knowledge about who is active. A social media directory that lists units, representative, why they are in social media and what they feel responsible for will be of great benefit. Approval processes would allow immediate population of the information into such an directory.
  • Response plan: the reponse plan can provide a very basic guidance of how the institution expects responses to happen in the social space.

Network response plan

Large public universities often seem to have hundreds of accounts in social media with various units operating in the space. That’s why my response model adds a network layer to the equation that looks at responsibilities and includes action options to flag content to other units etc.


To be effective in social media UBC needs to be strategic, clearly define responsibilities and authority in the space and make the required resources available.


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