Thornley Fallis' new Online Communications Policy

Simple works

For the past four years, Thornley Fallis has had a simple, two sentence online communications policy: “Be smart. Cause no harm to any person.”

This simple policy has served us well. We had only a few bumps – and we learned from each one.

This policy worked because we have many people who are active in social media and they are steeped in the blogging culture. They understand the importance of transparency, authenticity and generosity. They also understand the power of search and the permanence of what we put on the Web.

New people. New needs

A few months ago, we updated the Thornley Fallis and 76design Websites. In doing this, we introduced new Twitter feeds for both Thornley Fallis and 76design. We also created a page on our corporate Website that displays the current conversations our employees are having in social media. Each employee has their own page on which they can display whatever social media and information they want to share. They can add their personal blog feeds, links to their Facebook pages, Twitter streams, LinkedIn profiles – whatever social media they wanted.

I soon realized that our employees are generating much more social media traffic than I had been aware of. I also realized that not everyone spends as much time thinking about social media best practices as Dave Fleet or Terry Fallis might.

So, it’s time to take a second look at our online communications policy to be sure that it provides basic guidance for new employees and others new to social media and our perspective on its culture.

Under the hood

In refining our policy, I wanted it to be written in plain language. I also didn’t want to be so prescriptive that people would feel the need to refer to it constantly. And, bottom line, I respect the intelligence of the people I work with and trust their judgment. So, how to draft a policy that provides essential guidance but still puts the onus on people to exercise good judgment?

The answer, in my mind, is to ground the policy and guidelines in a clear statement of our objectives – why we are active in social media. Having stated this, I’m comfortable encouraging people to post freely if they know that their actions contribute to the achievement of our objectives. If they aren’t sure or feel that their posts/actions may actually detract from those objectives, then I suggest that they don’t post it. It in doubt, I ask people to consult a colleague before proceeding. Having spelled out this general framework, I needed only a handful of specific guidelines.

I posted the policy on our Internal Wiki and asked for comments. I received some good feedback from several people, including Jeremy Wright, Dave Fleet and Bradley Moseley-Williams. So, here’s the first draft of our new online communications policy.

What do you think of it? Have we missed something important? Would it work for your organization?


Thornley Fallis Online Communications Policy

This policy is intended to provide us with practical guidelines that we can apply to ensure that our online actions and communications will make a positive contribution to our reputation as individuals and members of the Thornley Fallis & 76design team.

You’re always one of us

Each of us represents the company to the world and the character of the company is defined by our beliefs and actions. We must be mindful of this when participating in social media and any kind of online communications.
You may be active in social media on your own account. That’s good. But please remember that whether you are on your own time or company time, you’re still a member of our team. And the judgment you exercise on your own time reflects on the judgment you exercise at work. There’s only one you – at play and at work.

Our Objectives

First, when participating in social media, please always be mindful of why we are involved in social media. Our company’s objectives are:

  • To educate ourselves.
  • To contribute to our community by sharing our knowledge with others. (We believe in the culture of generosity and recognize that we should contribute more to the community than we take out.)
  • To attract talented people
  • To attract sophisticated clients

As a first step in deciding whether to write or post something online, ask yourself if doing so would contribute to the achievement of these objectives. If so, then publish away. If your post would be at odds with these objectives, please do not post it.


Of course, sometimes, it’s nice to have some simple, plain language guidelines to point the way. So, here are some basic rules for day to day conduct.

  1. Cause no harm to any person.
  2. Be respectful and civil in your tone. (After all, that’s the kind of people we are.)
  3. Respect our clients’ right to decide for themselves what they want to make public. Unless they specifically grant us permission, do not post about client wins or client assignments.
  4. Be transparent. If you are posting about a client or commenting on a client competitor or posting about anything in which we may have a material interest, disclose the relationship or interest.

Still in doubt?

If you’re still in doubt, seek out the counsel of one of you colleagues. Two sets of eyes are better than one.

  • Love it! Simple, to the point, but enough to keep people on track. I am a strong proponent of guidelines like this, which are essentially a simplified high-level reminder of common sense.

    • Thanks Mike. No policy is perfect. But I think we can achieve the effect we want almost all the time with simple, shorter guidelines like this.

  • Thank you so much. I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Our comms department is immersed in SM (thanks to Mike K) and getting management and other staff to take baby steps but I know this type of policy is the next thing our ED is going to ask for so thanks for making my job easier (assuming of course it’s OK to integrate your grand ideas?!) to write it up! Angie

    • Hi Angie,
      Please feel free to crib anything you want from this policy. I posted it in the hope that it would help others.

      I’d be interested to know how your management and members react to something as simple as this.

  • This is a great post and very timely as well. And, thanks for letting us borrow from it as well.
    – Naveen

  • Joseph – I’m so glad you are posting this for everyone to read! I know of so many companies that need some official guidance in their social media policies. I agree with Mike, above, who says that this is basically common sense written down but sometimes people really need something to refer back to.

    Even the largest of companies are creating social media policies and often times there’s so much haggling for how broad or narrow you make your scope (do you spell things out or leave it open to interpretation) and I believe you took the right route – a nice mixture of both.

    Let us know how this works out and if you’ve added/removed/changed anything as its put into place. This could be a great case study for other companies out there because it’s one thing to put something in place, it’s another to follow up and measure the success and update it if needed.

    Aleksandra S
    (aka @alisaan on Twitter)

  • I’m with Mike: “a simplified high-level reminder of common sense.” I think this is a very good set of guidelines.

    I think most people understand that an individual, on a personal account, does not speak *on behalf of* their employer. But their character and the way they engage with others online certainly *reflects* on their employer. A company is made up of individuals, and is defined by who those individuals are.

    In the absence of a Government of Canada policy on social media, our department decided to create its own guidelines. They briefly emphasize the need for professionalism and common sense, but also provide direction on existing GoC policies and how they should interpreted in the online realm.

    For instance, we cannot publicly endorse an individual or business on LinkedIn. We cannot share copyrighted materials. We cannot engage with journalists when it comes to official business, etc.

    • Eric,
      These guidelines certainly would not work in the Government of Canada. And that’s sad. It’s sad that government is unable to place trust in employees. But that would require an advance admission of fallibility. A willingness to say, “we will make mistakes.” And confidence that the public and politicians will be reasonable in their response to mistakes.

      Over time, I hope that the expectations of government will shift and government will be able to fully embrace social media. I believe it would close the gap between government and citizens. But, that’s for another day…

  • David (digitaljoy)

    First let me say, it’s a little weird posting an opinion on the blog of THE innovator of social media in Ottawa… however, :)… this issue seems to come up quite a lot.

    Its such a shame when a company grows past the ability to use simple rules like “Be smart. Cause no harm to any person.” I think that is by far the best guideline I have seen.

    You appear to be governing “personal” social media interactions? I’m curious as to how you would handle one of the TF or 76 team blogging or tweeting an extreme political opinion (or any political opinion for that matter)?

    Anytime this topic comes up, I am reminded of a friend, who recently got a new job at the Fed gov’t level. The day the position was announced their blog traffic went up 800%. It was a personal blog that spoke mostly about travel, TV, etc. They had written an innocuous post about Harper 3 years ago. one post… three years ago. My friend had one day to take the post down or close the blog, failing to do so would result in not getting the promotion, and the possibility of getting fired.

    While you have written a well crafted policy, it still relies heavily on the “be smart, cause no harm” philosophy. A philosophy that only makes sense in a small ‘like minded’ company. Maybe if you are going to take the time to write it down, it would be worth being “more plain”? Keeping in mind, (b/c you are a trendsetter) there is a strong likelyhood, any policy you put in place is going to be adopted by several other companies 🙂

    Having said all that. “Be smart. Cause no harm to any person.” Is not only the best social media guideline I have ever heard, its great advice for every aspect of life and business.

    • David, I do see comments made by my colleagues that make me pause and ask myself how comfortable I am with them being posted. But I try not to impose my views. The Cause no Harm guideline pretty much ensures that people think through and substantiate any criticism, turning the simply critical into the constructively critical. And when, occoasionally, I’m still not comfortable with what is posted, I’ll use it as an opportunity to chat with the employee about the view so that they can understand my discomfort and I can understand their view. In all the time we’ve been involved in social media, I’ve only ever had one situation in which the employee and I didn’t resolve our difference (which does not mean that they agreed with me.) And in that one instance, I could live with our agreement to disagree.

      I think that any company could apply the approach we are applying. The prerequisite is a culture that rewards risk taking and thanks people for taking challenges. This kind of company understands there’s no such thing as failure, just lessons to be learned in order to do better next time.

  • Thanks Joseph. I will absolutely let you know!

  • Your comments on the GoC are right on. I would, however, differentiate a little between “government” (public servants) and “THE government” (the political sphere).

    The Clerk, Wayne Wouters, is putting an increased emphasis on trust and a less pyramid-like control scheme. On the other hand, this government has been tightly controlling communications. Like it or not, it has trickled down into the way the bureaucracy operates.

    I was really impressed to hear recently about IBM’s policies on social media. If a massive corporation like that, accountable to its shareholders, can let their employees loose and understand that it can be a positive thing for the company, then why can’t government?

    * Note: this post does not reflect the opinions of my employer * ;-)_

  • I think it’s a basic, yet sound set of guiding principles for your team…something that should give pause for thought before posting. And, something that could well be applied to personal social media accounts as well.

  • Your judgement reflects on you whether your at work, or not.

    I agree with this piece of good advice, but it’s like someone thinking that’s there such a thing a ethics, and “business ethics”. Like you are allowed to just switch ethical imperatives depending on where you are. How convenient.

    Companies have gone so far as to think they can actually dictate what a person says, does, and how they behave when they aren’t on the clock. Like they own you or something.’

    How pretentious, and ludicrous for someone to think they have a right to do such a thing?

    And oh yeah: The people doing the actual work really want another “policy” to worry about. Save us from your incredible “social media” extravaganza, and help us get our job done instead ok?

    Social Media. You mean email? Web Pages? Another example of packaging some basic thing in a different colored wrapper and calling it. New Incredible Powerful. Game Changing.

    It’s just another hyped “bubble” created by american marketing conglomerates, because we can no longer make anything that has actual real value.

    America, that’s us. We’re in the “Bubble” business. Why not buy one today!

    Recommended Viewing: The Century of The Self (Adam Curtis) Great documentary on Edward Bernaise? sp? The nephew of Sigmund Freud, and father to modern public relations and marketing in the US

  • DJEB

    “Cause no harm to any person.”

    Well there goes the whole engaging-in-the-capitalist-economy thing.

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  • C-A Granatstein

    After listening to the opinions of many the staff where I work and doing quite a bit of my own head-shaking around our old SM policy, as Corp Comm Manager I decided it was time to revised our company’s Social Media Policy. Employees are a company’s brand ambassadors and thankfully our CEO was in agreement. As a marketing and communications company we naturally attract people who want – no need – to communicate regularly in the online space so we definitely needed a solution. I thought IBM did a great job as did Shift Communications and to our simple guideline of “What you do online, should be no different than what you do offline” I will definitely be adding the TF tip: There’s only one you – at play and at work.

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