Avoid embarrassment and liability with a clear social media policy for staff.
Q. My association's employees are actively using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. What social media policies should be in place for employees in order to protect the association?
A. There are many types of pitfalls when using social media sites. Defamation, infringement of intellectual property, antitrust violations, and disclosure of trade secrets are all legal risks that every employee and association needs to be aware of when posting content on social media sites. Additionally, not all social media mistakes have only legal consequences. Poorly drafted comments and unintentional postings can create ethical dilemmas and embarrass the association and the employee.
Social media postings are permanent and can go viral within a matter of days. Therefore, inappropriate postings can create immediate and lasting damage for the association. Associations can adopt several employee policies to limit the association's liability exposure.
1. Be accurate and transparent. If an employee is commenting on the association or the association's industry, he should disclose his name and the fact that he is an employee of the association. This is not only the ethical thing to do, but it prevents others from claiming that an employee was trying to hide his affiliation with the association. Using aliases or pseudonyms to comment on industry-related topics should be discouraged. Honesty and transparency are crucial to maintaining an association's credibility. Employees should fact check all comments to ensure that they are accurate and based in fact before posting them on any site.
2. Use disclaimers. If an employee is discussing an industry-related topic and is not making statements on behalf of the association, she should make clear that the statements are solely her own. She can do this through a simple disclaimer within the posting stating, "I work for ABC Association. However, this is my own opinion, not the opinion of ABC Association."
3. Respect copyright and trademark laws. Employees should properly cite material in postings and provide links to original sources when possible. Employees must have the express permission of the association, or any other company or organization, before using its trademarks or copyrighted materials on any blog or social media site.
4. Maintain the privacy of others. Employees should refrain from sharing personal information (including photographs) of coworkers and association members unless they have express written consent to do so. Private information should remain private.
5. Do not reveal confidential information. Every association has confidential and proprietary information. Employees should take precautions not to disclose this information online. Even seemingly innocuous tweets can disclose proprietary information. If in doubt, leave it out.
6. Be respectful and tolerant. Whether or not an employee is speaking on behalf of the association, he still is seen as a representative of the association to the general public and should act accordingly. Employees should avoid posting material that could be seen as inappropriate, demeaning, or offensive. While the formalities of business correspondence do not tend to apply in social media, an employee should still be respectful of others. If an employee is part of a conversation that becomes profane or disrespectful, he should withdraw from it.
7. Respect antitrust laws. Antitrust laws are not arcane statutes. They are alive and well, and the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission do not hesitate to use them against associations. Employees should avoid discussions about industry pricing, refusals to deal, or industry boycotts. Associations should have antitrust-compliance policies and programs, and employees should understand the basics of antitrust laws and make sure they have the approval of corporate legal counsel before making any statements regarding prices or refusals to deal within their industry.
8. Promptly clarify statements that are misinterpreted. Even well-thought-out statements can create confusion. It's recommended that employees review sites after they have posted comments. In the event that people have misinterpreted an employee's comments or taken them out of context, the employee should clarify them immediately.
While many of these policies are common sense, many recent examples show that people do not use common sense when using social media. By creating a written policy for employees, you increase the chance that they will think before they post.
Katharine Foster Meyer is a partner at GKG Law, P.C., in Washington, DC. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org