While marketers in most other industries are lighting up the dance floor with social media, those in highly regulated industries are hanging around the punch bowl, no doubt feeling a bit left out of the party.

And it really shouldn’t be any big surprise:  if you’re in banking or securities, there are strict restrictions on what you can and can’t say about your products;  in insurance, you need to comply with a plethora of state-by-state regulations;  in bio/pharma, there’s the ever-vigilant FDA.  It’s certainly enough to give one pause when considering jumping whole-hog into a medium that seems to lionize the loose and casual;  because in these industries, loose and casual can quickly get one in serious trouble.

But does that mean all is lost …that this vehicle will forever be unavailable to our most shackled industries?  Not really;  it simply requires being circumspect.  Dorian Cundick and Rebecca Canan recently posted a set of guidelines on Forbes.com for doing just that;  we thought it would be helpful to summarize them here.

First, do no harm.
Even if you don’t proceed to actually using social media, do just this one thing:  get a policy in place. Amazingly, fewer than half of regulated companies have a policy for employees’ social media use, which leaves them with no deterrent and no recourse.  It can be short and sweet, and it should link into your existing corporate code of conduct.

Listen, listen, listen.
Even if you don’t (yet) plan to do any “talking”, you should amp up your monitoring.  You can use a service that not only tracks mentions of your company, but analyzes the context for you.  “Being good listeners means that even if you can’t talk a lot, the few things you do say are much more likely to have impact.”

Embrace the conversation.
Here’s the thing:  even if you beef up your firewall, ignore negative Tweets, chain employees to their desks and ban them from even thinking about YouTube, it doesn’t matter;  the conversation is happening whether you like it or not, whether you participate or not.  People are talking about your company and its products.  You’ll be better off by joining in, which will enable you to frame issues in a regulation-compliant manner and counter rumor with fact.

Special note for those in pharma, who dread The Adverse Event:  “A 2008 Nielsen study found that only four out of 500 online health care conversations contained adverse event information, and only one of those met all the criteria to require reporting.”

Share the love.
Try to engineer quick wins that build confidence throughout the organization.  When you do, share credit with colleagues in the legal, IT and finance departments who stuck their necks out to support those efforts.  A common complaint from those functions is that they bear all the risk, but share in none of the glory.

You have home court advantage.
It may not feel like it initially, but you do have a lot of control over what you talk about and where.  You can pick safe topics, such as disease awareness or retirement planning.  Feel free to screen posts to your company blog or website, or to turn off the comment function if you’re in dicey territory.  Tell real stories about real people, but produce them yourselves instead of directly allowing user-generated content.

Befriend your legal department.
First, you’ll need to educate your legal support that since we can’t stop social media, we need to find ways to work with it.  Bringing Legal into policy/issue conversations sooner rather than later usually helps a lot.  Some firms are creating lists of pre-approved messages around their top 20-40 inquiries or areas of concern.  Others have developed green-yellow-red systems for determining when and to what extent to involve Legal in their social media messages.

By way of summation, Cundick & Canan say: “In our research, we’ve found that 55% of highly regulated companies are already on Facebook, 55% are on YouTube and 45% are on Twitter.  Just because you can’t be as fun and flexible as more carefree industries, it doesn’t mean you can’t find a nice middle ground.”