Social media and the law: five points to remember

Speaking to lawyers and having an early warning system are vital steps to avoid embarrassment.

Chris Scott: avoid humiliation or litigation when using social media
Chris Scott: avoid humiliation or litigation when using social media

Corporate affairs directors often tell me they work to ensure social media activity is part of their main communication strategy. Yet taking that thinking further can also make it part of how the reputation of a business is grown and defended. The laws around social media activity can be complex if you get it wrong, but also easy to navigate if you know what has to be considered. Five good starting points are:

1. Plan and involve your lawyers in the planning. The most ambitious social media projects are also the thorniest for lawyers – crowd sourcing creates questions over the ownership of content; branding on social media needs to be cleared just as it does offline, and collaboration with another platform raises questions of responsibility for content. The lack of territorial boundaries makes matters harder, so the sooner lawyers are involved in resolving legal questions the quicker the project will be able to proceed.

2. No corporate social media channel can be complete without customer complaints, questions from campaigners and even the public threat of legal claims. All have departments elsewhere in the business perfectly placed to handle them, so agreeing escalation procedures with your colleagues as to how they will be spotted, allocated and dealt with will let you respond meaningfully faster and without risking legal problems later. Executed well, a strong social media monitoring and prioritisation system can give you a valuable early warning of any areas of risk.

3. As the horrified reaction to the Google v Spain ‘right to be forgotten’ case shows, our 18-year-old data protection laws have been overlooked and misunderstood by many for too long. One of the huge benefits of communications and marketing teams using social media is the access to instant feedback and information about customers and others. Holding and using that information is subject to different regulation in different territories – make sure that is planned and understood. Equally, any interactive forum where customers offer up their own information – especially about their health or financial affairs – has to be managed carefully to avoid unwanted disclosure.

4. Putting senior people forward as a human face of the business has its benefits, but understand the risks too. It has become de rigueur for critics of a business to gather information on its prominent individuals, while the press will relish a chance to juxtapose a difficult announcement with information on social networks about senior managers. The law will protect privacy, but you will be better protected if you understand and control the content in the first place.

5. Corporate teams seldom embroil themselves in public arguments or comments on criminal trials but it is worth ensuring those publishing on behalf of the business have some understanding of the laws that apply to publication in the territories in which you operate. The pressure to provide quick responses occasionally sees businesses trip up.

Reconciling the immediacy of social media with solid legal protection isn’t always easy, but by understanding some of the nuances of the law in this area you can give yourself breathing space to allow for a swift but considered response. Of course, not all compliance problems on social media need legal advice to avoid them – the best way to avoid embarrassment remains not to let staff update the company account from the same device they use for personal tweets.

Chris Scott is a partner at Schillings


Read more about social media:

Pharma companies need to join the social media age

Social media: get sophisticated or die

Integration report: one vision

A PR professional's guide to social media monitoring


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