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Business must be aware of the legalities of social media

by Brian Sims

Social media offers many businesses and organisations a simple and cost-effective route to the general public. However, care must be taken to adhere to all relevant laws if legal action and reputational damage are to be avoided. Whether you love it or loathe it, social media is a pivotal part of modern life, and whilst some businesses and organisations have made a conscious design to avoid its use altogether, most have taken the plunge. Some use it because they have strategies that benefit from the level of exposure it provides, others because it fits with the profile of their products and services. In truth, the majority of businesses and organisations use it because their customers do, and it makes sense to be where your customers are! Whether businesses are using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn or any of the other many services like Blogs and Forums matters not. Most social media takes an informal approach. Indeed, this approach is often forced upon those who use it by the way the services are operated. Additionally, the businesses in question are competing for attention alongside a variety of others including competitors, celebrities, potential customers and the general public. The ‘noise’ generated by the wide variety of sources varies from informative, through challenging, to downright offensive. It is this lack of formality, coupled with large amounts of seemingly anonymous and unregulated noise, that leads some to view social media as something less significant” in terms of legal responsibility” than other media sources. This is often exagerrated by the mentality that much of the information pushed out over social media has a ‘throwaway’ lifespan, only being relevant for a very short period of time. In reality, social media is covered by the same laws that cover other media, and issues such as libel, defamation, false advertising, threats and grossly offensive comments are all potentially liable for legal actions by the offended parties. Just as important is the reputational damage that can be caused if customers or partners of businesses see something that they feel is at odds with the ethos of those organisations. This is not only the case where a business transmits a message, but also if an individual sends such a message whilst identified as an employee of the company. There have been a number of high profile cases in recent times where legal action has been taken over comments made on various social media channels. Last year, over 650 people in the UK faced action in relation to messages, or incidents provoked by messages, via the two largest social media channels. By their very nature, social media channels are designed to merge together, allowing people to share information in a fast and simple way. A comment on one channel can be quickly shared, to a degree that it effectively moves swiftly outside the control of whoever published it. Other users further disseminate information, across a variety of channels. If a business would rather withdraw statements that it” or an employee or agent” has published, it could well prove impossible to do so. Once out there, the statement remains associated with the business or organisation in question! Even if the original statement can be removed, the sharing and resharing by other users means it is out of the control of the originator. However, they are still liable for any legal issues, and could still receive negative or hostile attitudes from customers and partners. It is not difficult to find businesses and employees of businesses that behave on social media in a manner that they would never do in a formal business environment. As the use of such channels increases, it becomes vital that policies are put in place to protect companies, both legally and with regards to reputation. Pete Conway Editor” Risk UK

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