The carrier and media company has released a company policy on Social Media, one of the first such policies to ever be posted for public scrutiny - in order to prevent more embarrassing episodes like the public spat between Telstra management and employee Leslie Nasser aka Fake Stephen Conroy.
Employees will need to gain authorisation from both their immediate boss and Public Policy staff, plus participate in social media training programs, before being permitted to make any representation about Telstra on social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace etc), micro-blogging sites (Twitter), file sharing sites (Flickr, YouTube), blogs or forums (Whirlpool etc) or journals of record such as Wikipedia.
The training aims to "update your knowledge on emerging social trends and evolving best practice in social media," according to the policy.
Once accredited, a Telstra staff member is asked to only offer advice or support on their domain of expertise.
They also must disclose their role and employment with Telstra, and refrain from disclosing confidential information (such as financial data or forward looking statements.)
A breach of the policy, the document states, can result in a verbal or written warning "or in serious cases, termination of your employment or engagement with Telstra."
"Telstra may recover from you any costs incurred as a result of a breach of this Company Policy. If you break the law you may also be personally liable," the policy states.
The policy does not apply to personal use of social media to discuss issues unrelated to Telstra. But the rules do apply to the use of Telstra's blog, nowwearetalking.com.au, said Telstra's head of public policy David Quilty.
"The rules apply across the board, it is not site-specific," Quilty told iTnews.
"Obviously Telstra's own blog is an opportunity for a two-way conversation. People can freely give their point of view without fear or fervour. But we think it is reasonable they identify themselves as Telstra employees."
Quilty admitted the carrier has struggled with social media at times - no more so than late last month, after Telstra employee Leslie Nasser was 'outed' for posting messages on micro-blogging site Twitter under the name 'Fake Stephen Conroy', in which he ridiculed the Federal Communications Minister and made light relief of the telecommunications industry in general.
The loose-tongued Nasser became a problem for Telstra management, who chose to take 'disciplinary action' against him, news of which was posted on Telstra's official blog.
Nasser's public reply, in a comment on that same forum, was explosive.
"I do get annoyed when I'm maligned... when I'm just flat-out lied about by a company that demands an employee's absolute loyalty, but is utterly unwilling to reciprocate," he replied to a public statement by Telstra chief technology officer, Hugh Bradlow.
"Sometimes that annoyance leads to harsh words, so here are some for you; go f*** yourself."
Quilty told iTnews that Telstra has been "looking around" for examples of what other Australian organisations are doing in terms of a policy around staff use of social media, but "couldn't find much."
The company chose to go public with its policy to encourage debate that might refine the policy further.
"I don't pretend we have all the answers," Quilty said. "We think this is worthy of public debate."
Quilty said it would be "counter-productive" to close off staff use of popular social media tools, just as it could be highly damaging to allow staff to use them "open slather."
Ross Dawson, chairman of social networking analyst group Advanced Human Technologies, described Telstra's new policy as "solid and straightforward."
"While other Australian organisations have implemented social media policies, Telstra is one of the first companies to make it public. The release of its policy is none too soon, given the issues Telstra has faced recently," he said.
"Hopefully Telstra's move will prompt more Australian companies to establish social media policies. Given the reality of employees being active on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, it is essential that clear guidelines are set to make this activity useful, not dangerous."
Encouraging positive interactions
The Leslie Nasser episode is a low point in Telstra's otherwise positive experimentations with social media.
Telstra invested heavily in virtual reality site Second Life, and it's Bigpond Internet support staff maintain a presence on Twitter that has seen many customer issues resolved.
The Bigpond trial began badly, Quilty exists, with the team adopting "it's usual corporate speak" in early interactions. "We effectively got kicked out," he said. "It simply wasn't how people communication on this medium."
The team got better results, he said, by "talking on a level playing field" with other Twitter users rather than taking a "condescending tone."
"There was a real turnaround in attitude of users of the Bigpond Twitter Group," he said. "It was a real eye opener."
Quilty said he hoped the new policy wouldn't prevent Telstra staff from trying to be helpful to others on online forums.
"It's a hard issue. We don't want people providing advice who don't have the knowledge to provide sound advice," he said.