According to Sgt. Gary Stein of the U.S. Marine Corps, he was just exercising his First Amendment right to free speech when he criticized President Obama by putting the President’s face on a “Jackass” movie poster on Facebook. After all, it went out to just the people in his network, and any U.S. citizen should have the right to air their grievances about their government to friends, right?
But the Marine Corps, his employer, took a very different perspective. Criticizing the President and other elected leaders is seen as being detrimental to good morale and to appropriate roles of leadership. In fact, not criticizing civillian leaders is so important that it is a part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), the military equivalent to all of the policies any employer and government entity would have. Under Article 88 of the UCMJ it is a crime for an officer to use contemptuous, rude, disdainful, or otherwise disrespectful words against the President, the Secretary of Defense, and other elected officials and under Article 134 any speech, no matter the form or channel, that is prejudicial to discipline and good order of the service or that could bring discredit to the military is also considered criminal. The Marine Corps took this so seriously that they arrested and court martialed Sgt. Stein. The tentative outcome for Sgt. Stein is that he will be discharged under less-then-honorable circumstances. A heavy cost for a post on Facebook.
So how did Sgt. Stein and the Marine Corps get to this point over a Facebook post. Sgt. Stein was an experienced Marine who, because of his rank, had some knowledge of the policies and practices of the Marine Corps. The Marine Corps obviously had policies in place, though perhaps not specific to social media, that prohibited what Sgt. Stein did. So where was the disconnect?
The simple answer is that we may not know. Did the Corps lack specific policies areound the use of social media by Marines? Are there policies in place that covered both on-duty and off-duty use of social media? Was it a lack of training? Was Sgt. Stein ever trained about the appropriate use of social media while in the Corps? Was he not made aware that from his employers perspective the UCMJ covered social media too? Was it that Sgt. Stein just decided on his own to disregard the policies and go ahead and post that comment anyways? Was it a combination of some or all of these? We don’t know, but there are five good lessons here for other government agencies and companies from this experience.
1) Social media policies should layout the fence, not describe how to play in the grass. You will never be able to come up with all of the creative ways in which an employee or customer will be able to damage your brand using social media. So instead of trying to write an endless list of specific rules and regulations about every single thing in social media that they can and cannot do, tell them where the fenceline is and let them go at it.
2) Policies need to platform agnostic. A social media policy that is technology platform agnostic might seem to be an oxymoron, but it isn’t. Technology is changing at a rapid pace, and if you want any sort of space inbetween changes and updates, your policy needs to be somewhat technology agnostic – applicable no matter platform. I have seen some people recommend that companies have specific individual policies covering covering platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, personal blogs, and others. Trying to keep up with technology like this is a recipe for never ending work.
3) Social media policies don’t exisit in a vaccum. Good social media policies generally cover only a specific set of communications channels such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, personal blogging and others. But they also need to be clearly connected and integrated with other policies such as HR policies, IT policies, corporate security policies, compliance policies, and others. If an organization expects its social media policies to align with and amplify existing policies, there there needs to be a clear system of cross reference and integration.
4) Policies need to be updated on a regular basis. Policies that involve technology need to be updated on a regular basis. Technology is constantly evolving along with the society and culture that it exists in, and the policies that cover or are affected by these technologies need to be reviewed and updated on a regular basis, at least on an annual basis and sometimes more frequently.
5) People need to be trained. You can’t expect people to follow policies and rules that they don’t know about, so employee training on the appropriate use of social media needs to be done as part of initial onboarding and then needs to be refreshed on an annual basis or whenever there a significant changes to the policies or the technologies that they cover.
6) Training needs to be up-to-date and relevant. When I was in the military and worked in government, I went through annual training around OpSec, sexual harrasment, ethics, and other areas. I received similiar but less extensive training working in the corporate world. In both arenas it was often the same mind numbing training complete with 1950’s black and white video year after year after year.
I am not sure if Sgt. Stein should be discharged from the Corps or if the Marine Corps over reacted. But I do know that good social media policy practices might have prevented the problems that Sgt. Stein and the USMC are facing over this incident.