As featured in the March 2014 print edition of Communicate Magazine:

Communication professionals and particularly those who started their careers as journalists will understand how seriously publishing groups take the risk of legal action. As a young journalist 13 years ago I recall trooping from Hammersmith to Farringdon for what was, in hindsight, a highly ironic training session based on a publisher and its insurers seeking to avoid the risk of a libel writ.

This being the days before Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, my audience base was little over 10,000 print readers. Irrespective, I was still required to renew this training every six months. Compare that audience against those now enjoyed by leading social businesses – Tesco has 1.4 million Facebook likes. At the time of writing British Airways has tweeted 115,000 times and has 365,000 followers. Sir Martin Sorrell has just under 100,000 people subscribed to his ‘Influencer’ bulletins on LinkedIn.

Just like the publishers of trade magazines before them, those engaged in debate online are also publishers in the eyes of the law. Yet despite publishing to thousands and millions it is striking how seldom businesses seek to understand let alone mitigate the risks they encounter from publishing. Tweeting the latest low-cost deals is unlikely to result in a High Court libel claim, but sharp responses to comments from customers or others might. Equally, with the 2013 Defamation Act making clear the responsibility and procedures for dealing with online comments made by others on social media you control, how many of those at the frontline of viewing and editing online content feel they have the expertise to deal with complaints if and when they arise?

Those who encourage customers to interact with them on social media can inadvertently end up causing themselves further problems – if customers seek advice or offer private information, more serious problems can ensue. Likewise, a business can be held liable for the social media activity of its employees during the course of their work, irrespective of whether they were asked to publish or not.

There’s an additional issue for businesses when it comes to social media; how they are affected by content created about them or directed to them. It is generally the job of communications professionals to monitor what is being said on social media and to try to deal with issues that arise as soon as possible. Yet responsibilities can become blurred, especially when marketing, HR and customer relations teams start using the same social media channels as well. We often see businesses caught between two unwanted results – no-one believing they are responsible for evaluating and escalating content, and everyone feeling they must escalate everything of concern.

Last year Schillings undertook some research entitled Reputation Resilience that looked at how communications professionals and lawyers work together. The research suggested a friction that stems from competing obligations to be fast and to be considered. We see this friction played out every day when we advise big businesses, and a recurring catalyst is social media with its built-in demand for instant reaction.

But this need not be the case. As professionals we are all seeing attitudes to social media mature and – just as the publishing companies learned what risks to insure and put in place training to minimise the risk – businesses need to put in place processes and training that not only identifies who is responsible for publishing but who is responsible for identifying and escalating problems.

Where to start? It is not that hard for a business to understand who publishes and what they publish, but internally those teams and individuals need to cooperate in the same way they would with any other form of communication. Understanding who publishes and what they publish instantly gains a degree of control for the business and lets the risk be assessed.

That allows the writers to be trained on what issues are relevant to the business and what content to look out for. Based on our experience of training communications professionals, it’s important to understand what issues may be of legal concern in order for the in-house lawyers to be given adequate time to assess the problem. This approach then allows both parties to work together in assess and iron out any legal risk.

Lastly, it’s important to look across the business at who monitors social media and agree what gets escalated and to where. With proper escalation procedures in place, the role of senior managers is then safeguarded for only the most pressing issues.

Nothing happens in business without risk and if a lawyer sees the business taking a needless risk it is their job to say so. But where communications professionals can show the business imperative around their ambitions on social media, the conversation quickly moves from being a yes or no assessment to finding a sensible way of achieving it with negligible risk.