How your company maintains its social media presence is important – and could keep you out of the courtroom

British author Aldous Huxley probably didn’t have social media in mind when he wrote Brave New World. In fact, it’s unlikely he could have ever imagined the Pandora’s box of issues that companies face when posting on social media.

And gas, oil and mining companies aren’t immune; in fact, they may even need to be more diligent in their posting – and more attuned to the legal issues surrounding social media. Still, most experts agree that despite the legal issues that could arise, having a presence on social media today is imperative.

Darin Klemchuk, managing partner at Klemchuk LLP, intellectual property attorneys in Dallas, notes, “It’s important for all industries to have a solid social media presence because it strengthens their brand. Obtaining and maintaining a strong brand is a great offense to help prevent trademark infringement. … The more your brand is out there and known, the harder it is for someone to knock it off without ramifications.

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“Social media also gives companies a ‘voice’ to respond to current events,” he adds. “Controversial events and stories that would otherwise be one-sided are now two-sided, allowing the company to better manage and protect its brand.”

Still, having a presence and protecting that presence must go hand in hand. “Because social media will grow with time and the law tends to lag technological development, companies and individuals using social media should take care,” Klemchuk says.

Employee posts

One thing Klemchuk specifically warns is to be extremely careful with employees. Know that employee posts in social media may be considered protected speech. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that certain employee gripes, while made publicly in social media at the company’s expense, are protected and therefore cannot be considered grounds for employee termination. Likewise, employee posts can lead to harassment, discrimination and hostile work environment claims if not handled properly.

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Klemchuk says employers should also use caution when they mine social media to research potential hires, since that could lead to the discovery of protected information and claims of discriminatory hiring practices.

And even comments on websites outside the company are cause for concern. False statements made by employees or paid third parties about a company’s products and services on social media and review sites have led to claims for deceptive trade practices and false advertising. Klemchuk advises that these risks be communicated to employees.

And companies should always be concerned about breaking confidentiality when posting. Care must be taken to educate employees about proper use of social media and how to safeguard confidential information.

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That should be part of a company’s social media plan. Klemchuk says, “We recommend instituting a social media policy, as part of your employee handbook, to help prevent issues from arising relating to social media posts and accounts. A strong social media policy identifies the company as the owner of their social media sites, addresses confidentiality issues and the ramifications of posting false or misleading information about the company, among other things.”

Social media and scandals

When a company faces a scandal or negative publicity, social media can be a powerful tool, for good or ill. If negative comments are posted about a company, Klemchuk recommends the company respond very carefully.

“Companies must be sure to communicate accurate information at all times via social media to avoid potential legal issues. One suggestion is to have a single point of contact from the company that manages the social media accounts, especially during times of controversy.

“Usually transparency and a genuine approach is appreciated by the public. When done the right way, social media can be a powerful tool for helping to manage difficult situations.”

The future of social media

Social media isn’t going away, and it has become a way of life, both inside and outside of the business world. And, as Klemchuk notes, “These days, there often isn’t much distinction about which is which because our worlds often blend together.”

But because of the inherent public nature of social media, more liability arises for companies, he says, and there are more opportunities for defamation claims, breaches of privacy and confidentiality, discrimination, and false or misleading communications.

Being aware of all of the legal issues surrounding social media, and taking the appropriate steps to help protect against them, will make any company stronger and ready to face both the fans and the haters lurking in cyberspace.  

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