Web Policy, Standards and Guidelines – Do Not Mix

During the discovery phase of WelchmanPierpoint's Web governance consulting engagements, I ask clients to share their policy and standards documents with me. Time and again, I’m handed a document that includes a mixture of policy, standards and guidelines. I see this mixture in online documents as well. In fact, I recently came across several social–media-related documents labeled as policy, guidelines and the like, when in actuality, they were a mixture of document types – or the opposite type of what they purported to be. Here are two literal examples from social media documents of how policy, standards and guidelines are often interchanged:

  • A cable broadcaster’s document labeled “Social Media Guidelines” states in the body, “For the purposes of this policy…”
  • A county in Virginia’s document labeled “Social Media Policy” states, “Violation of these standards may result in…”

This issue is not about semantics. Policies, standards and guidelines serve different functions, are set by different types of people, and have different levels of compliance. Given these tendencies, each should be distinct in its own right and should be parsed out in a separate document.

Consider the information you wish to express to your audience. Then, determine which content type (policy, standard, or guideline) best meets your objectives and required level of compliance based on the definitions below. You’ll see I’ve included examples related to social media to illustrate the difference between the types:

Web Policy

Web policy is a set of high-level mandates for what must be done on the Web. Web policy is set by senior leadership and is created to protect the organization from risk. It holds the highest level of authority among standards and guidelines, and it sets the tone for related Web standards. Compliance with policy is required and enforceable. A policy for social media might include this kind of language:

Any person posting information to a social media channel shall ensure that the information posted does not:
  • Conflict with our organization’s mission, objectives, and policies
  • Contain or link to libelous, defamatory, or harassing content, even by way of example or illustration

Web Standards

Web standards are statements that define how the policy mandates will be accomplished. They are set by subject matter experts and are created to support quality execution. As a result, they are specific and detailed. Web standards are enforceable; complying with a standard is not optional. Here’s an example of a standard taken from an Army Corps of Engineers social media document:

Do not use your army.mil e-mail address to establish an account on a social media platform.


Guidelines are considered best practices for what should be done on the Web. Guidelines are not mandates; complying with guidelines is optional. Here’s another example from the same Army Corp of Engineers document:

Always pause and think before posting. If your comments give you pause, don’t post them.

Waivers Possible for Standards

Keep in mind that while compliance with standards is required and enforceable, waivers may be possible. A good Web governance framework specifies how one may request a waiver to a standard. It requires that a formal request be drafted that includes both a rationale and a remediation plan for meeting the standard in the future. The rationale, however, must present a solid business case and must be supported by metrics. A simple excuse won’t cut it.
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