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No rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something!

Edison’s quote about trying to accomplish things has always been one of my favourites. For me it highlights the problems that can occur when rules, guidelines and parameters are applied to something as fluid as engaging online.

One of the things I find people ask for most when devising a ‘social strategy’ are previous examples of guidance, policy and standards. As a community, we’re a nation of cobblers – building on the guidelines and guidance ‘prepared previously’ and retrofitting them for our own requirements. For .gov.uk websites, the Central Office of Information is, for now, responsible for maintaining guidance on standards.

Tucked away somewhere in the middle of these are the principles for participating online as a civil servant. The guidance relies on five key points:

  1. Be credible
    • Be accurate, fair, thorough and transparent.
  2. Be consistent
    • Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Be cordial, honest and professional at all times.
  3. Be responsive
    • When you gain insight, share it where appropriate.
  4. Be integrated
    • Wherever possible, align online participation with other offline communications.
  5. Be a civil servant
    • Remember that you are an ambassador for your organisation. Wherever possible, disclose your position as a representative of your department or agency.

I’ve always thought these provided a pretty fair and easy to understand set of rules when engaging online – even though they were drafted a while ago. Whilst they are short and to the point, the process of pulling them together was anything but and occasionally required high-level intervention to get everyone to agree and apply these in a professional context. They’re also (intentionally) fairly ambiguous; the emphasis is placed on how ‘you’ as an individual participate online. But are they ‘right’? Can guidance ever be? Are we confident that the basic principles of any social/online strategy are the right ones?

Trust me, having been involved in the process of pulling these together, the last thing I want to advocate is a new set of rules and guidance but I have wondered if the templates we use are the right fit for our organisations. Do we even need guidance anymore or are we now in a position where we can reduce these to something more like The New York Times approach to social media: ‘Don’t be stupid‘?

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Steve Cottle

I heard an airline executive speak at a conference last year about having 5 core values that guide all behavior at his company, whether in the corporate office or on a plane’s crew. He provided an anecdote of a worker at a legacy airline who made about 5 insanely dangerous and unethical decisions to get his time card punched on time, but didn’t break any specific rules in the huge rulebook, whereas they very easily would have violated at least a few core values of any reasonable organization. I think this principle approach is an interesting way to provide guidance without creating restrictive guidelines that might now actually stop what you intend to.

Justin Kerr-Stevens

I agree Steve. Have to say, am also slightly worried that the example you have given is an airline where you would think any kind of rules and guidance would be pretty stringent, especially where Safety is concerned!