How Should PR Adapt to Looser Social Media Rules in the Workplace?

We found ourselves fascinated by this great Sunday New York Times piece on an issue of vital importance to PR and HR departments: monitoring employees’ work-related social media activities.

A few companies have received very bad press thanks to conversations that their own employees initiated via social media. We understand why most companies’ policies seek to “discourage comments that paint them in a negative light”– no one likes unflattering attention, and Facebook has the potential to turn insider “water cooler” conversations into public debates.

But the National Labor Relations Board recently complicated the picture by ruling that some employees who were fired for Facebook conversations should be reinstated and that a company’s ability to regulate its team members’ “social” lives should be limited. For example, companies cannot adopt broad policies prohibiting negative comments if said policies “discourage workers from exercising their right to communicate with one another with the aim of improving wages, benefits or working conditions.”

That is very confusing! So what does the shift mean for public relations? Does complaining about work on Facebook or Twitter qualify as “protected speech?

According to the cases mentioned in the article, it’s OK for an employee to threaten to report colleagues for not working too hard and inspiring a bunch of R-rated comments from co-workers, but it’s not OK for a journalist to complain about his local police department’s failure to provide him with homicide stories or for a bartender to refer to his customers as a bunch of “rednecks”. Because they were discussing work-related issues with each other, members of the first group got their jobs back.

Many companies are understandably upset about the ruling. They believe that the NLRB is trying to reassert its role in the national conversation about workers’ rights and that the group has effectively tied their hands when it comes to fighting against the kind of bad PR that can come from disgruntled employees venting on Facebook.

There’s little doubt that Facebook has changed the nature of the conversation. An employee can talk to a friend or family member all day about how awful a boss or supervisor is–but posting that conversation on Facebook for the public (or at least a few dozen members of the public) to read? Different story.

What do we think? Where should companies draw the line? We’re especially curious to see how PR firms, which are notoriously careful when it comes to media, choose to deal with this potentially controversial issue.

Also: how would PR pros advise clients dealing with employees who post disparaging comments on social media forums?