Social media provides opportunities, and challenges, to businesses. A considered social media policy will help minimise the risks of working in digital environments, while exploiting opportunities to improve your business. A social media policy should clearly specify acceptable and unacceptable behaviour for your employees, while also addressing key risks that your business may be exposed to through its use of social media.

What is social media?

Generally, social media is web-based applications that enable people and businesses to connect, create, publish and share information to either specific groups or the public. Social media sites include Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Foursquare.

What benefits can social media offer your business?

While most social media sites have been developed with individuals as the intended primary users, businesses are becoming more involved in social media. This is because:

  • social media allows businesses to directly connect and engage with their customers (something traditional advertising and broadcast media can't do)
  • campaigns and communications delivered through social media can be flexible and very responsive, and require a much shorter lead-time for publication when compared with other traditional media
  • registering and maintaining social media accounts is generally free (excluding the cost of dedicating resources to operate and monitor these accounts), and
  • social media offers businesses a large, growing and global audience – for example, Facebook recently reached 950 million accounts and Twitter recently passed 500 million registered users.

Potential legal issues with social media

Social media also gives rise to legal risks for organisations.

Common legal issues have already started to emerge as a result of the use by companies of social media as a business tool. Those issues have included:

  • Defamatory or offensive comments in posts or other publications by employee's or third party's on businesses' social media accounts. In May 2012, Vodafone UK suspended an employee who published a homophobic and sexist tweet via the company's official Twitter account.
  • Misleading and deceptive conduct arising from:
    • material posted to the social media account of the business, by the business or its employees, or 
    • posts by third parties that businesses have an obligation to review and remove once identified as being misleading or deceptive.
  • In 2011, the ACCC fined an allergy medicine supplier who failed to remove false testimonials that had been posted to the Facebook page belonging to that business.
  • Infringements of intellectual property rights, including infringement of trade mark and/or copyright rights of the third parties infringement and unauthorised disclosure of confidential information and/or trade secrets.
  • Damage to reputation.

The use of social media by employees in their personal lives presents a risk to business. Feuds between employees are increasingly being played out on social media, exposing the employer to workplace and employment issues.

In May 2012, a listed fashion retailer in the US fired its CFO for comments he made on Twitter criticising the board and management of the company.

Social media policy: a starting point for managing social media in your business

The effective management of exposure to risk when using social media must start at the employee level, as:

  • any activity that a business intends to undertake through social media will ultimately be implemented by its employees, and
  • employees are increasingly using social media to communicate with colleagues and discuss work-related matters both during and outside business hours.

A good social media policy is the starting point for business for its social media management strategy. That policy should

  • be written in plain English
  • be brief (though detailed enough to adequately suit employee's use of social media), and
  • clearly outline and distinguish the responsibilities of employees when using social media for:
    • business purposes, and
    • personal purposes.

A good social media policy should be a separate document to any existing electronic communications policy.

A social media policy can be augmented with systems that monitor the use of social media by employees at the workplace. Monitoring employee usage of social media and compliance with a social media policy should be undertaken, like any other appropriate workplace behaviour policy, to minimise risk to your organisation. Use of monitoring systems raises a number of potential privacy issues that must be considered and addressed, as well as compliance with the requirements under the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 (NSW) and other relevant legislation.