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Establishing guidelines for electronic communications

By Emilie M. Pierschalla and Edward A. Steele, CSP

According to a national survey conducted in 2012 by a Christian-based digital advertising agency, 46 percent of religious organizations say social media is their most effective method of outreach. The same survey found that 51 percent of congregations have at least one senior staff member who regularly blogs or updates social media.

“Our organization has been using social media for three years now,” says Martin Rathjen, minister of faith formation and communication at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN. “Initially, it was seen as another way to connect with our youth; but now, we’re using it to reach all age groups because of the significant volume of people using social media tools.”

Before diving into a Facebook page or Twitter account or beginning a text message campaign, Meredith Gould, Ph.D., a digital strategist and communications consultant for mission-based organizations, recommends establishing an all-encompassing Social and Digital Media Code of Conduct to help ensure appropriate electronic communications.


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“The Code of Conduct must clearly communicate all social media policies, expectations and rules of use,” Gould emphasizes. “This written agreement should be reviewed and signed by all staff and volunteers, ensuring they understand your expectations and there are no misunderstandings.”

Social and digital media managers
An important part of any Social and Digital Media Code of Conduct is a section identifying the responsibilities of the users and who the users will be.

“The first responsibility of any social media manager should be to develop and oversee a strategic plan for how social and digital media communication tools will integrate with existing traditional communications plans,” Gould says.

Digital media managers also are usually responsible for developing and posting content, monitoring the online conversation and engaging in conversation. Additionally, they need to react quickly to neutralize any negative responses. Finally, they should be good teachers to help train other staff members.

“If a mission-based organization has a clearly articulated strategy, message and use policy, I recommend senior management designate more than one person to manage the social and digital media presence,” Gould advises. “However, if an organization doesn’t have set guidelines or a strategy, I advise only one social media account manager.”

Privacy settings and disclaimers
Religious organizations should understand that each social and digital media tool reaches varying audiences and offers different privacy settings and terms of use. The Social and Digital Media Code of Conduct should clearly define what privacy settings are approSocial-media-crisispriate and what disclaimers should be used for each online channel.

Facebook is currently the primary tool Gould recommends for mission-based organizations because it allows users to create varying degrees of privacy and permission settings, ranging from age restrictions and profanity block, to private groups. Twitter, YouTube and blogs offer privacy options, as well.

Immanuel Lutheran Church opts to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Vimeo.

“We have one account on each social media outlet for our organization,” Rathjen says. “That account serves our entire congregation, including children’s, youth and adult programs. But, we have private subgroups within our page for various age groups.”

Other settings also can make it easier to control the conversation on Facebook.

“We have the Cape First Church page settings to allow fans to comment on the page, but they can’t post videos or photos,” says Amanda Starks, media coordinator at Cape First Church in Cape Girardeau, MO. “Also, we have a disclaimer on the pastor’s Facebook page to make sure fans understand that the views of commenters aren’t necessarily those of the pastor.”

To ensure full protection, religious organizations are advised to have legal counsel review their social media disclaimers.

Communicating with minors
Since younger congregation members are some of the most active on social and digital media platforms, it’s crucial that the Social and Digital Media Code of Conduct clearly outline policies specific to interaction with minors.

  • Staff and volunteers should not have any one-on-one, private contact with minors through any electronic communication vehicles, including (but not limited to) email, text messages, instant messaging or Facebook.
  • Any electronic communication between an employee / volunteer and a minor must take place in a public environment, such as the wall of a Facebook page.
  • If there’s ever a case when one-on-one communication with a minor is necessary, another adult from the organization should be copied in the correspondence.
  • Let the parents of minors know what your social and digital media policy is. Suggest that parents monitor social and digital media to help mitigate any inappropriate behavior.

Although church employees and volunteers have many responsibilities, a very important part is to protect minors. That includes protecting them from inappropriate online or digital relationships and interactions.

Social media crisis communication plans
The Social and Digital Media Code of Conduct should include a crisis communications plan specific to social media situations. Gould suggests that leadership create such a plan by thinking through all the possible negative or crisis social media scenarios.

Examples of scenarios could include someone who posts an inappropriate comment on the organization’s wall or a social media manager who accidentally posts personal information on the organization’s account.

Once you have a list of all the possible crises, those creating the plan should answer the following questions:

1) Who is the first responder? Staff should understand who to contact in the event of an online crisis situation, and how / when it’s appropriate to contact them.

2) Should the response be public? Most social media issues will start on a public forum. Sometimes an organization can reply to negative comments publicly.

Oftentimes, it’s best to move negative conversations offline to avoid having them escalate. This can be done by publicly asking the commenter for a personal email address or telephone number. It’s important to remember to respond in some way and not ignore the negative comment.

3) Who should be the spokesperson? Regardless of the size of the crisis, there should be a designated spokesperson for the organization to keep all external messages consistent. This could be the social media manager, the communications manager, the minister or someone else. It should be someone who understands the social media tools and is able to speak articulately under pressure.

4) Who do you need to communicate to about the crisis? Depending on the situation, different audiences will need to be informed. It could be the congregation, only parents of minors, only users of a particular social media tool or another subgroup. If it’s a significant situation, the local community or media might need to be informed.

5) What tool(s) should be used to communicate information to your primary audiences? You might decide communicating on the original social media platform is the only response necessary. For a larger situation, communication via more traditional tools — such as email, written letters or telephone calls — also might be necessary.

Online communication risks can’t be eliminated completely. However, understanding and assessing the risks, and then developing and implementing a comprehensive Social and Digital Media Code of Conduct, will help religious organizations mitigate the risks and reap the benefits.

Emilie M. Pierschalla is a former editor at Church Mutual Insurance Company in Merrill, WI. Edward A. Steele, CSP is Risk Control Manager for the company.


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