Recently, an episode of “Staffers Gone Wild” played out on the internet with the unbelievable tweets of government staff members being broadcast for all to see. Isn’t it comforting to know that your hard earned tax dollars are being spent to fund the watching of Nirvana videos or support drinking while on the job? I’m not here to talk about the politics of this behavior, as I will leave that up to the political pundits to comment on.
What I do want to talk about are some potential legal ramifications that exist in businesses with easy access to the thousands of open eyes and ears reading your posts and tweets. We all know that social media marketing, imaging, and messaging are extremely important in shaping your brand. It takes a lot of time and money to get others to see you as you want them to. However, with one simple tweet your whole plan and message can be compromised, leaving you open to liabilities and harming your brand. Additionally, there are a host of legal pitfalls awaiting you.
It is important to know that each of your employees using social media accounts can be potentially viewed as “agents” of your company. While the law recognizes various types and levels of agents, it has been generally defined as basically someone who is authorized to act for another and/or someone that the outside world would reasonably believe is working on behalf the company (each state has its own “agency” laws and a licensed attorney should be contacted to provide proper legal advice regarding your situation). Any employee tweeting or posting may potentially become a liability to you. Regarding a private (social media) account, employers are somewhat limited in controlling an employee’s personal posts. However, there may be an issue if employees are posting company-related information on their private accounts.
Regarding social media content, businesses need to be aware of laws that govern and limit what can be posted. One of the laws is the Federal Trade Commission’s truth-in-advertising rules, which require businesses to not make misleading, false, or deceptive claims in their advertisements. There are also many intellectual property and copyright laws governing what you can use for your own business without infringing on another company’s ownership rights. Additionally, defamation and harassment laws limit what can be said without invoking other types of legal action from companies or individuals.
So what are some things that you can do to help protect your business?
- Understand Your Legal Limits – Before employees can understand what information can and cannot be use online, those at the top need to understand first. Seek out those laws that affect your business and understand your legal limits. Of course, if there are any questions, consult a licensed attorney that can address your questions.
- Empower Your Employee Policy Manuals – In all of your employee policy manuals you should have clear and detailed policies regarding social media use, including who is and is not allowed to post content. When hiring 3rd parties to post content for you, be sure to have clear communications regarding what is allowed and prohibited. It is highly recommended that you hire a licensed attorney to review or write your policy manuals and to draft and review your employee contracts/agreements to minimize your legal risk.
- Train, Train, Train – Have immediate training with new employees and frequent follow-up training that communicates clearly what can and cannot be said online regarding your business. You should also train employees regarding the potential risks that can occur when using their private accounts, such as defamation, trade secret disclosure, etc.
- Monitor Content – Depending on the size of your business and the amount of content being generated, this may be a difficult one to accomplish. However, it is extremely important to know what information is going out to the public regarding your business. Have someone in your company that is knowledgeable of the risks to oversee posted content. If something detrimental does go out, the damage may already be done. However, damage control can be better executed the earlier damage is caught.
- Plan for the Disaster – No one likes think that something bad will happen to them. However, if damaging content does go out, do you have a plan in place? Depending on the harm of the content the plan can range from a quick apology, to reprimanding or firing an employee, to quickly consulting an attorney to defend yourself from legal action. Sit down with your staff and determine what detrimental scenarios can occur from detrimental content and put an action plan in place that can be quickly executed to handle any issues. It is also wise to consult an attorney to review your plans and ensure that proper protections are in place.
(NOTE: In any business, legal issues are not to be trifled with. This information is in no way meant to be construed as a legal opinion and/or as legal advice. The author has provided the information provided herein simply for informational purposes only. It is important to properly plan, prepare and protect yourself from legal issues by contacting a licensed attorney to obtain legal advice for your particular situation.)
About the author:
Shaine has always been fascinated with how people interact with each other and shape the world around them. The internet and social media has brought a whole new sphere in these communications and has produced a world our past would have never imagined possible. He is finishing his law degree and plans on being a licensed attorney by August 2012. He will continue helping businesses navigate around pitfalls and have the most success possible. (NOTE: Any information provided by Shaine is in no way meant to be a legal opinion and/or legal advice. It is important to contact a licensed attorney to obtain proper legal advice for your situation.)
7 thoughts on “Staffers Gone Wild – Protecting Your Business from Damaging Social Media Content”
This is a very interesting debate, as a pest control company we send out employees all day long to service homes. They carry the company logo to buy gas, to buy food, and while driving. There maybe lines drawn legally for actions done while eating lunch. But legally is different from perceptually. The legal ramifications can be costly, but so can the cost of public perception.
@Thos003 I agree that bad public perceptions from your employees can be costly for your brand and even kill it. Legal fees can also kill a company financially if any actions come against them. Regarding social media, we definitely don’t want to stifle creativity or the amazing medium that it is. However, I think with some good planning and training, a company can avoid the stupid little mistakes that are happening out there in social media.
By the way, you’d be surprised by what some attorneys have argued about when employees are ‘agents,’ even when they were wolfing down a burger.
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They said that any publicity is good publicity. We all know that this isn’t true cause like you said Shaine, bad publicity can hurt your business.
For example, “a man accused Delta Airlines that its employee(s) pee in his luggage”. The man took his problem to the media and post his message all over the web. I’m sure Delta Airlines business was hurting due to this incident, that’s why they were willing to talk to the man to resolve the issue and investigate into the matter.
@Loc So true! Due to social media, we are seeing wide shifts in marketing and the instant “in-the-moment” publicity is having a huge affect on brands and consumer choice. Marketing has never seen the likes of what we are seeing today. Gary Vaynerchuk’s recent book, “The Thank You Economy” explores this topic well.
The internet can be a very big pool of useful information, positive comments and potential clients raving about how good a company does, but one mishandled/malicious video can spread like wildfire. With companies offering services that promote media monitoring, your company may lessen the impact. But it can be very expensive.
Training and monitoring employees is high in my priority list. Also, we have a properly drafted employee agreement to clear all the doubts that may arise in an employees’s mind.