Are you protecting your valuable business assets, such as intellectual property, confidential information and workforce against the risks from social media surfing? How do you know that a disgruntled employee isn't giving away your commercial ideas on social media?
Social media is now a main stream business tool for raising corporate profiles, exchanging ideas, sourcing talent, collaboration and finding new customers. Sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus empower the user to interact with products and services, develop ideas and thought leadership, but can also make or break a corporate brand.
Organisations just need to be smart in managing their risks associated with having a social media presence, plan a compliance strategy, and update their communications policies and rules appropriately.
Social media compliance
So what are the legal and regulatory pitfalls you need to avoid, and what business ethics should you put in place to stay out of trouble and get full social media compliance?
1. Use common sense
Horace, the Roman lyric poet and satirist (65-8 BC) once said "You can destroy what you haven't published; once out the word can never be recalled" ("Delere licebit quod non edideris; nescit vox missa reverti").
Before publishing anything online review what you've written. Unfortunately we've become 'sloppy' in how we write many of our business communications today, a trend which started with the use of email. There are countless cases of customers being ridiculed and colleagues insulted through the misuse of that little 'send' button. Having regrets seconds after sending that message on Twitter? Sorry, once it's in the digital ether there's no chance of bringing the message back!
2. Same rules apply
Social networks, blogs, and Twitter may be new but old laws and regulations still apply. You can't libel, send out personal information without consent, pass on company secrets, breach copyright or do anything that even considers breaking criminal and anti-terrorism laws. Even 'do-gooders' can become unstuck, especially if they pass on any child pornography they might happen to stumble upon in their computer to a manager for investigation! If you are advertising products or services using social media you also need to think about local laws about advertising. All laws generally need advertisements to be legal, decent, honest and true.
3. Keep customer confidences
"Careless talk costs lives" went the old wartime slogan. In the same vein that no-one wants an accountant who dumps client files into a skip, so customers won't do business with a company whose employees don't respect confidentiality. Take, for example the case of Kristine Ann Peshek, the former Illinois assistant public defence lawyer whose law license was suspended for 60 days because of her blog postings that exposed client confidences.
Don't blog about your customers - it's just wrong!
— Will Roebuck (@ERADARtweet) February 20, 2014
4. Avoid anti-trust practices
Think about who you are talking to and collaborating with in those LinkedIn groups and other professional networking forums. You might find yourself on the wrong side of competition laws if you create any agreements which fix markets or are anti-competitive.
If you are running an online forum, use cautionary language and disclaimers. Collaborative forums, including community groups should be managed in a similar way to those of a professional or business association.
5. Don't oversell
If there's once thing that annoys me about a social networking group it's the member who constantly bombards others with spam about their products or services. Unless, of course, the group allows it in its rules. Otherwise, just don't do it - spam is illegal anyway. If you're as bloody minded as me you won't make any purchasing decisions based upon a product being thrust constantly in your face.
This doesn't mean that you can't solicit business. But some ethical rules do prohibit some professional services from soliciting potential clients for pecuniary gain. Merely engaging with the public in an online forum of any kind is not solicitation. If you are going to approach someone directly, make your email relevant - a direct marketing communication rather than spam.
6. Don't provide formal advice
As a business professional, you need to be careful that you don't give anyone the benefit of your advice upon which they then act upon, and as a consequence, find themselves in trouble. You may end up being sued and be in breach of your industry's own professional rules.
For example, a lawyer will refrain from giving fact-specific advice online — and to include disclaimers in any answers they provide to consumer questions. There is a big difference between educating about law and advising about law.
You can always speak in general terms and make it clear that any advice has to be tailored to an individual's specific circumstances following further diligence.
7. Don't make false statements or misrepresentations
The online world is a major challenge to trust and confidence. You don't know who people are, where they are, or the quality of their products and services. Building trust is a key priority for organisations and policy makers are working hard to provide frameworks to help facilitate customer confidence.
You could be in breach of both advertising and consumer protection laws if you misrepresent yourself, your services or your capabilities. Social media offers a powerful form of marketing, especially for young and less-experienced business professionals.
In the enthusiasm to build a business, you should be cautious not to overstate your capabilities and experience. If someone has a bad experience with you it will soon get round.
8. Be competent in social media technology
You don't need to be a technology nerd to understand the application of technology on your business. Get some training on what social media technologies are out there and the risks involved in using them. Remember that governance is managed top-down throughout your organisation, compliance bottom up. Top managers, senior executives and information workers all need to understand the role social media plays across the organisation, the dangers and pitfalls involved, and the ways in which you can mitigate risk.
Download our guide
You can also download our guide on how to develop a corporate social media policy