One of my projects over the last few months was to write and get approval for social media staff guidelines for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). I’m sharing them because I hope that they will be useful to other organizations who are working on similar documents. Besides: I wouldn’t have been able to write them without other organizations and companies making their’s available.
The International Red Cross Red Crescent Movement in general and the IFRC in particular are very complicated organism. So please let me explain a few things:
1. This is not your National Red Cross or Red Crescent Society
These are NOT the staff guidelines of the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross, the Turkish Red Crescent etc …
These are the social media guidelines of the “International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies”. The IFRC is an organization where all 186 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are members. It is not a headquarters but a service provider to the National Societies who can take or leave what the IFRC produces. Some National Societies already have their own social media guidelines.
2. “Neutrality” and “Freedom of Speech”
How far you’ve gone always depends on where you are coming from.
I realize that the parts about “neutrality” and “keeping your manager in the loop” might sound very restrictive to some people, especially those from democratic countries. But you have to keep two things in mind:
A, Our Code of Conduct says:
“[All staff shall] not publish any work (including writings, photographs, video footage, etc.) that has been produced in connection with, or that is related to, their assignment and functions with the Federation without prior approval of the Secretary General.”
This could easily have been used by management to shut people down who have their own blogs or use social media to talk about work. Instead we went exactly the opposite way and turned this (with the help of stakeholders who could make that decision) into “keep your boss in the loop”. This is a pretty big step.
B, The IFRC demands of its employees restraint when it comes to political controversies:
“[All staff shall] not publicly express any opinions on events connected with political affairs or engage in political activities that could reflect adversely on the impartiality, neutrality or independence of the Federation (…)”
This clause has been part of everyone’s employment contract for many years. Obviously it also has to apply online.
Coming from a country like Germany this initially felt like a pretty big violation of my rights as a citizen. But for a lot of people in the field, being seen as coming from a neutral and impartial organization can literally be a life saver. Many of them routinely have to work with very controversial people or even in war zones. How your organization, and the people working for your organization, are perceived might not only influence whether you have access to the vulnerable people you want help but it might also have very serious security implications.
3.Guidelines vs. policies
The role of guidelines within the IFRC is to give advice, not to set rules. Rules can only be set in policies which is why these social media staff guidelines contain no new rules. They merely look at existing policies within the organization (such as the code of conduct) and give guidance on how these should be interpreted in the context of social media. This was done in consultation with human resources, the legal department, the staff association, two directors, an undersecretary general and other stakeholders.
Changing policies on the other hand can be an extremely lengthy process. In some cases you might need approval from all 186 member National Societies and is a process that can easily take two years. These guidelines on the other hand were completed in less than three months.
Why the social media guidelines matters
For the first time the IFRC is encouraging staff who are not professional communicators to actively and publicly talk about the organization and their work. The guidelines create clarity and reduce the risk of arbitrary repercussions – it’s definitely harder to shut someone up now than it was before. On the other hand the guidelines also make clear what is unacceptable from an organizational point of view and that you might have to answer for what you write online.
Personally I hope that this document will start discussions within some National Societies about whether a top-down model for communication is still appropriate and I hope that this in turn will lead to the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement becoming more open. I realize that this is a big dream – but I hope that I have planted one of the seeds to make it happen.
Download the Social Media Staff Guidelines of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC); 8 pages (PDF)
Please leave a comment and tell me what you think!