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“Keeping it Legal on Social Media”

“Keeping it legal” with your brand’s social media is as simple as the saying: “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” While that idea seems too simplistic for something as complex as the law, when you are avoiding legal issues on social media platforms you only have to remember the basic principles that you learned from your kindergarten teacher.

  • Don’t say mean things about others (defamation)
  • Don’t talk about things that might embarrass others (healthcare privacy and HIPAA)
  • Don’t judge others based on their appearances (discrimination)
  • Learn how to share and ask before you borrow (copyright)
  • Don’t lie (endorsements, sweepstakes, fictitious profiles, consumer reviews in advertising)
  • Learn how to react when things don’t go your way (responding to a crisis on social media)

At the January Social Media Club of Kansas City breakfast, Amy Wooden (public affairs and crisis communication expert, AJW Consulting) and Katie Hollar (chief marketing officer at Shook, Hardy & Bacon), explained the basics of how to keep out of legal trouble on social media and how to manage a crisis (legal or otherwise) on your brand’s social media platforms.

As the CMO of a large law firm in the KC Metro area, Hollar shared her experience regarding the major legal issues that a company could face from their social media platforms or those of their employees:

  • Defamation: This occurs when a person intentionally spreads information about another person, group or company that damages their reputation. They can take action against you no matter what medium you use to share this information (including social media). You can be held liable if you share defamatory material that somebody else created (think before you retweet!).
  • Healthcare Privacy and HIPAA: Healthcare providers, health plan providers and healthcare clearinghouses must all follow the Privacy and Securities rules in HIPAA. However, employers are generally not covered. Neither are friends or colleagues.
  • Discrimination: While an employer cannot use discriminatory practices during hiring, firing raise/promotion opportunities, the employer can screen potential candidates via their social media profiles. In fact, according to a 2013 Carnegie Mellon study, up to one third of businesses do screen applicants on social media.
  • Copyright: This one is fairly self-explanatory. Don’t share media on company social accounts without permission. But keep in mind that giving credit does not protect you from infringement claims.
  • Endorsements: Read the FTC guidelines and when you’re in doubt, disclose that you work for a company if you’re sharing content about it (think employees sharing sweepstakes information, or media your brand has created that’s been sponsored or promoted by a person or organization).
  • Fictitious Profiles: This should go without saying, but don’t make fictitious profiles of your competitors to spread lies. Just don’t.
  • Consumer reviews in advertising: You cannot use online reviews of your brand to make claims that is superior above other similar brands.

Wooden, on the other hand, is in the business of crisis management. This is something that can be affected by legal issues arising from social media or can be managed via social media.

She first described the negative and positive roles of social media in a crisis.

  • Negative:
    • Social media is where the news breaks (whether you like it or not). News of your company’s legal issues will most likely break on social media before any other medium.
    • Like a bad game of telephone, people will spread misinformation (accidentally or on purpose) about your company and these legal issues.
    • People will also use social media as a channel to attack your company if they feel you are in the wrong. They will direct these attacks directly to your social media profiles or from their own.
  • Positive:
    • The good news is you can use social media to mobilize advocates for your company. Share the correct information with them and encourage them to share it as well.
    • You can dispel rumors from your company’s social media profiles and it will reach your followers and potentially their connections as well (see above).
    • You can allow people to vent their frustrations with your company. This might seem like it should be in the negative column, but it’s actually a good thing. Frustrated customers vent about your company directly to you on social media and hopefully you can help them with their problems or concerns. Who knows? You might even turn them into another advocate!

Wooden also outlines some important things to remember about your social media communication during a crisis.

Crisis Guidelines

  • Speed and accuracy are equally important (don’t sacrifice one for the other)
  • Cover-up is always worse than the crime (always be transparent with your communication)
  • Legal strategy then PR strategy (work with your legal counsel on a strategy THEN implement your PR strategy)
  • Use one “voice” when communicating (consistent messaging across all mediums, not just social)
  • Humanize the situation (give a human voice to your social communication and don’t sound like press release)
  • Implement your action items that result in closure (for the company and its customers) on the issue

If you have made it to the end of this blog post, congratulations! It was a doozy. For those with short attention spans, TL;DR: companies can avoid legal troubles arising through social media if they are nice to others and learn to share.

Why do I work at AWG? “I like working for a company that supports local, often times family-owned, businesses in everything they do in order to help them succeed and stay competitive. It’s great to interact with the stores on a daily basis and learn about their story and the communities they serve.” -Melanie