How do I shut down Twitter?” were the exasperated words of HMV’s marketing director reported last week following the hijack of the retailer’s official Twitter feed by disgruntled staff.

During what was described as the en masse sacking of 60 employees at HMV’s head office, messages using the hashtag #hmvXFactorfiring started to appear, giving a blow-by-blow report to the account’s 70,000 followers. These messages were re-tweeted in solidarity by what seemed like most of the rest of Twitter, reaching millions.

HMV officials eventually regained control of the feed and started to delete the offending messages, but not before a final tweet alleged HMV’s official Twitter account had been set up by an unpaid intern in 2010.

While organisations should clearly take all practical steps to avoid former employees using their social media platforms for acts of revenge, this episode speaks to a wider need.

Research conducted by ICM in 2011 revealed that only 24% of companies have policies in place for how employees should use sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. In 2013, companies can no longer ignore putting in place processes and systems to govern how employees use social media.

“Only 24% of companies have social media policies in place”

Social media guidelines are particularly important for retail brands, where large numbers of employees are the public face at the front line of the brand. Should all staff be empowered to respond to customer complaints online? Should they mention their employer’s name in their online profiles? Should staff be encouraged to share product information and promotions through their social networks?

These are just a handful of key questions retail workers should know the answer to. While it is impossible to anticipate every social media scenario, effective guidelines will provide clear answers to common situations as well as a set of principles to guide online behaviour in general.

What guidelines should contain will vary and they will take time, effort and cross departmental co-ordination to develop. Once in place, they also need to be effectively communicated and updated, not lost at the back of the staff handbook. Social media monitoring should be used to regularly assess how well the guidelines are working.

While a company’s official social media platforms may be run with military discipline by one or two marketing employees or an external agency, the full extent of potential reputational damage can only be mitigated if everyone understands what is permissible and acceptable. The lesson HMV’s marketing director learned too late is that brands don’t tweet, employees do.

Daljit Bhurji is MD of integrated social media consultancy Diffusion