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Do you have an online communication policy?

SUMMARY: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, texting, instant messaging … social media options seem to grow every day. Social media offer a great way to expand your role into the online world, but they also open a new can of worms — the need to protect you and your church while encouraging online interactions.

The corporate world 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 IBM’s policy, frequently cited as an excellent example, at: http://www.ibm.com/blogs/zz/en/guidelines.html.

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.

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.

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 the most frequent users, yet they are minors who must be protected. MySpace and Facebook 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.

Finally, remember social media use all comes down to personal responsibility and common sense. 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."