Whether you’ve just dipped a toe into the pool of social media or you’ve jumped in with a splash, at some point you need to surf an ethical wave in this vast new ocean. That is, how do you and your employees use these wonderful, wide-reaching tools in a professional, beneficial way and avoid getting smacked by damaging, or worse, illegal, usage.

This is becoming a big deal, because statistics show that more than 80 percent of Internet users participate in a social networking site, according to Cindy Unger, WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz adviser (WyomingEntrepreneur.Biz. is a collection of business assistance programs at the University of Wyoming).

The beauty (and sometimes the curse) of these networks is that they are about communities, collaboration and user-generated content. Not only is the size of the social networking audience of interest to businesses, facts that information moves instantaneously and across global boundaries are also significant. For agriculture, that means farmers can instantly “tell their story” to people they’ll probably never meet in person and “reconnect” with an audience increasingly unfamiliar with all things farming and ranching.

That’s an attractive concept in this new "online, social world," where business (and farm) reputations may be defined by customer opinions and ratings. Companies and organizations that formerly feared the idea of social networking are embracing these sites to use for lead generation, employee recruiting, branding, customer service and other typical business marketing functions, Unger notes.

However, the use of social networking in the workplace raises many new and unique legal and practical issues for businesses that want to harness the benefits of increased employee participation in social networks, while avoiding the pitfalls. On one hand, unregulated employee use/misuse of social media can result in an employer having to deal with unprofessional, and possibly illegal, actions by employees, she cautions.

Another possible issue is a supervisor or employee posting discriminatory remarks about the company, a co-worker, or a company product on a personal Facebook page. Online harassment is an undesirable possibility. What about an employee who engages in criminal conduct using an employer's computer?

On the other hand, employers that enact tough restrictions may violate federal or state electronic monitoring laws, or laws relating to legal, off-duty personal conduct, Unger adds. “To navigate this minefield, companies are adopting official policies for social media usage, while the courts are simultaneously making rulings about the legality of those policies.”

One way to get through this labyrinth is to open honest, frequent communication with employees regarding their use of social media and your expectations for conduct.

“You have expectations with employees regarding their job performance,” says Jolene Griffin with Dairy Management Inc. Expectations for social media use should be no different.

And, invite them to help you promote your dairy business. For example, offer interested employees an opportunity to share Facebook postings or Tweeting duties for your farm’s accounts.

Just be sure to give them the right information, acceptable vocabulary to use with consumers and background tools, such as consumer-tested key messages, so they are equipped to communicate your desired message. Encourage employees to find their own “voice” and talk about things from their perspective, letting their personality shine through.

Also, lay some ground rules regarding personal social media use and how it reflects on their reputation, as well as that of your dairy.

“Remind them that whatever they say on social media lives on forever, meaning that future employers can look back at Facebook pages or Tweets,” Griffin says. “A good rule of thumb is to remind people to never say anything on social media that you wouldn’t say to your 85-year-old grandmother.”

Still, decreased work productivity due to time spent online is one obvious problem to social media use if you are not careful. Legal pitfalls, such as the possibility of an employee revealing confidential or proprietary company information in a social media post, are also a concern.

As companies and farmers flock to use social media outlets for marketing purposes, they must consider how employees can put them at risk and how to protect themselves. The best solution is probably for businesses to adopt a set of clear, written social media policies that are consistent with their organizational culture, suggests Unger.

To this end, Griffin recommends you learn from those who have gone before you and take a page from what has worked for other organizations regarding social media guidelines. Check out this link to part of IBM’s employee handbook.

Finally, retain your sense of humor. Sometimes the best intentions go awry when it comes to social media, and mistakes happen. As long as there was no intentional harm inflicted or criminal intent, learn to make the best of human errors and turn them into a positive for your farm.

Case in point, this exchange from the American Red Cross that stemmed from an innocent mistake from a valued employee who thought she was logged into her personal Twitter account:

The tweet was taken down within an hour, but like everything in social media, you can’t delete anything online permanently. This is the Red Cross response tweet: