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Ohio Companies Adopt Social Media Guidelines

The Ohio State Highway Patrol has imposed new rules regarding social media posts by its troopers. The move came after a trooper posted suggestive pictures of herself in uniform on her Facebook page.

To curtail embarrassment, more and more businesses and organizations are implementing social media guidelines for their workers.

mySpace, Facebook and Twitter are among the better known social networking sites that millions of Americans now use to communicate with each other. 250 million people use Facebook and they've posted billions of photographs there. Besides visual images, Facebook users like to share information. Debra Jasper, director of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism at Ohio State University says people are mixing more of their personal experiences with the professional. Jasper says that has some employers worried that their reputations may be damaged by an employee's posts.

"A lot of social media policies in companies today are saying, 'Don't do things in your social networking sites that you wouldn't talk about at work. Don't post photos that you wouldn't show at work;' you've got to be thinking that these are public spaces," Jasper says. "And in a lot of ways it's like email. People finally figured out that if I email something, [it] can be passed around to a lot of people. So we say, 'Think twice, type once or post once.'"

But some Ohio companies are taking advantage of emerging social media. Tom Matthews, a spokesman for the Longaberger Company in Newark says the company has appropriate guidelines in place.

"We state that you should identify yourself as an employee and let people know that these are your views not necessarily those of the company, we do say that you should not be criticizing or defaming or sullying the character or the reputation of the company," Matthews says. The company has its own Facebook page as does company CEO Tami Longaberger. Matthews doesn't have exact figures, but he says those pages - and hundreds of other pages belonging to Longaberger representatives - are responsible for thousands of contacts. And he says that in the past six months the company's social media usage has grown exponentially. He says that between 60 and 75 employees devote at least part of their week to social media contacts. He says all employees with social media connectivity are encouraged to comment about their experience with the company in their free time.

"It's been hugely positive for us and we have had no issues whatsoever," Matthews says. "And I think that a lot of folks within our company - our employees- have done a great job in adhering to the guidelines and recognizing the rules of the game when it comes to social media."

Some critics though think some organizations are too restrictive with their social media policies. Take the case of the state trooper who the highway patrol says, posted inappropriate pictures of herself in uniform. A lawyer for the state troopers association says he plans to challenge new restrictions that were recently put in place. Now if troopers want to mention their jobs on websites or post pictures of themselves in uniform, superiors must first see the material.

But what about a person's free speech rights? According to James Brudney, a professor at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, such rights depend on who your employer is. If it's the government, you may be entitled to more protection. Private employers, Brudney says, can be more restrictive.

"When a public employer lays down rules or disciplines an employee for expressive conduct or expression, that at least raises the possibility of a first amendment issue because the first amendment only protects you against state action," Brudney says. "If a private employer does the same thing, it's not implicating the constitution although there are common law and sometimes statutory law rules about privacy protection.

Even with the legal considerations, Ohio State's Debra Jasper says social media offer great opportunities for businesses and other organizations.

"I mean when all of your employees are your spokespeople, that can be a great thing for a company so it's not just about risk, it's also about opportunities.