Rules of engagement: Social Media Guidelines for the CPA firm

Most CPA firms have yet to establish a social media policy, as they are likely considering the best approach to bring social media into the marketing mix.

Truth be told, there is no hard and fast rule on how companies should approach this. The accounting industry is no exception, and faces particular challenges in creating social media plans, such as whether to include client references, and giving tax or other consulting advice in a public forum and later being held responsible for it.

It boils down to encouraging your team to engage, and eventually participate, in the greater dialogue. Firms cannot be seen as educators in the industry if they are not helping clients do their research and discuss issues.

When creating our own social media participation guidelines, Templeton & Co. addressed these concerns to allow our firm to focus on the important end goal, which is to join the conversation and help our clients with information or insight. Rather than “just another” addendum to our employee handbook, we decided to distribute 10 guidelines for social media participation. We were also sure to restate our overall goal: for our firm to engage and participate in a respectful and relevant way within the online community.

1. Transparency: Identify where you work and what your role is. Honesty will be noted in the social media environment.

2. Never represent yourself or the firm in a false or misleading way. All statements must be true and factual, and all claims must be substantiated.

3. Post meaningful, respectful comments.

4. Use common sense and common courtesy. It is best to ask permission to publish or report on conversations meant to be kept private or internal to the firm. (Our firm has a separate privacy and confidentiality agreement when it comes to the discussion of client matters, which we drew attention to when distributing the guidelines.)

5. Stick to your area of expertise and feel free to provide unique, individual perspectives on non-confidential firm activities.

6. When disagreeing with others’ opinions, keep it appropriate and polite. If there is an antagonistic situation, do not get overly defensive and do not disengage from the conversation abruptly. We recommend discussing the situation with the marketing/PR department for advice on ways to disengage from the dialogue in a polite manner that would not reflect poorly on the firm.

7. If writing about the competition, make sure it is diplomatic. Have the facts straight.

8. Never comment on anything related to legal matters, litigation, or any parties that the firm or its clients may be in litigation with.

9. Never participate in social media when the topic being discussed may be considered a crisis situation. Even anonymous comments can be traced back to the firm’s IP address.

10. Be smart about protecting yourself, your privacy and your firm’s confidential information. What you publish is widely accessible and will be around for a long time. Google has a long memory.

To get us started, a handful of people at the firm – ranging from a new college graduate to the managing partner – were selected to be the firm’s “blogging ambassadors.” Not to say that other people within the firm cannot blog, but we have to balance our participation with good judgment.

The key is not to stifle employees from speaking up and participating. The goal is to make it fun and have it tie into firm-wide business development.

Since it’s still so early in social media development, there are no rules set in concrete for all of us to follow. The guidelines Templeton has constructed may, in fact, change over time. However, good common sense on how employees will participate should always come ahead of the actual participation to get the benefits without the unnecessary risk.

As a caveat, a good social media plan should also be created alongside these guidelines to make sure company objectives are met in this exciting area.