Four tips for avoiding social media pitfalls

Kim Houser

Conflicting and overlapping social media laws and regulations can create murky waters for businesses. Social media is not only controlled by federal regulations, but also by state law, tort law and intellectual property law. Not surprisingly, there is often a lack of clarity surrounding the use of social media by businesses, from hiring practices to employee usage to consumer engagement. The following tips offer simple strategies to avoid some of the most common missteps.

Verify who owns your content

Because finding images and videos online is so easy now, businesses and/or employees sometimes make the mistake of believing that content found online is part of the public domain. This is simply not true. Images and other forms of media placed online, regardless of copyright notice, belong to the person or entity that created them. Before hitting “copy” and “paste” or “Save As,” it is important to obtain written permission from the owner to use their content. Using content without permission can leave a company open to litigation. One way to avoid copyright infringement is to license work that is available in the public domain through recognized licensors. The best way, however, is to create your own content – either in-house or using digital artists that have signed written agreements.

Create a social media policy for your employees

We have all heard of embarrassing (and sometimes damaging) posts made by a rushed employee. While it is not feasible for your legal department to review each and every post generated from within the company, it is a best practice to provide a social media policy and training for employees who actively post on behalf of the company. The policy should include guidelines that address what can and cannot be shared with the public, as well as how to avoid defamation and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) violations.

Follow FTC guidelines carefully

Even a 140-character tweet can be considered an advertisement today. This means that social posts must comply with advertising laws to the same extent as traditional ad campaigns. The basic rule of thumb is to not make claims about your own products that cannot be substantiated, and to avoid commenting on your competitor’s products at all. In addition, the FTC guidelines, which were created in response to third parties posting on behalf of companies, require that the relationship between the company and the third party be disclosed. In other words, if you pay fashionistas to post photos of themselves wearing your clothing, this affiliation must be disclosed to consumers.

Maintain control of your social media channels

Managing and monitoring every account that represents your company is extremely important. In other words, do not permit employees to set up their own Twitter or Instagram accounts to use in furtherance of your business. Maintaining control of the login credentials, as well as who has access to the accounts, from the outset can easily prevent future posts from occurring should the employee leave the company or even go rogue.

Social media is continually changing, and oftentimes the laws addressing social media issues are confusing and inconsistent. Overall, the best advice is to simply be aware of what your employees and independent contractors are up to with respect to social media and to craft a social media policy that provides guidance and support for those who may use social media on behalf of your business.

Kimberly A. Houser, PhD, is a published author and assistant clinical professor of business law at Washington State University’s Carson College of Business. She teaches courses in the legal and ethical environment of business, business law for masters of accounting students, and social media law.

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