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Paul Zimmerman

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Your Company Needs a Social Media Policy

The use of social media in the corporate setting carries serious potential risk. The most extreme example of this, of late, is Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission after tweeting that he was considering taking Tesla private and that he had “funding secured” in order to do so. Market chaos and the SEC litigation ensued, and since then Musk has been forced to step down as chairman of the electric car company and pay a $20 million fine to settle with the SEC.

While not grabbing as many headlines as Musk, employees of all rank and profile are prone to commit social media blunders, and they too can pay the consequences. Take, for example, the Dunkin’ Donuts employees who posted a video they created showing one of them humiliating a homeless man at a Syracuse, New York location; the workers at a Little Caesars franchise in Riverdale, Georgia who uploaded onto Instagram a picture of a customer along with a tasteless message about her; or the Texas Children’s Hospital nurse in Houston who went on an anti-vaccine rant online relating to a young patient’s bout with measles. In all these cases, the employees were fired, but that certainly did not shield their employers from a slew of negative press. 

No doubt about it, for employers, social media is both a blessing and a curse. With the stroke of a key or tap on a screen, your company can engage thousands – if not millions – of actual and potential clients and customers. By leveraging Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, you can promote your business, brand, people and products with ease. And your employees, many of whom have grown up using these platforms, can be your most coveted social media apostles. Yet there can also be a major downside to your employees’ social media activity. It takes just one ill-conceived post to create serious problems to your operations that can be difficult to unwind.

This is why your company needs a sound social media policy establishing guidelines for employees regarding their online communications; a social media policy that contemplates both your corporate social media accounts as well as your employees’ personal ones. Toward that end, here are a few things to consider:

Company vs. Personal Profiles

Because personal Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter feeds are generally open to the public, there can be a thin, often murky line between them and your company’s online profiles. Should one of your employees be the subject of a Google search, there is a chance your company appears in the results along with the employee, thereby creating a nexus between the two. Consequently, your employee’s Facebook post about that wild weekend at Coachella or a controversial tweet, can reflect poorly upon your brand.

Indeed, your employees have broad discretion to post on their personal accounts as they see fit. But because their commentary can impact your bottom line – to the extent it can be tied to your company’s social media presence – your social media policy should include guidelines for required privacy settings for your employees’ personal accounts, together with recommendations for the types of content they should (or should not) post online. This should go far in preventing public relations nightmares.

Prohibited Content

With the ease of social media comes the risk of disclosing confidential or unflattering company or customer information. Imagine an employee posting a selfie from the office that unwittingly captures private notes on a conference room whiteboard or an image of a soon-to-be released product. A potentially disastrous situation, to be sure. And then there is the careless employee who takes particular pride in “going viral” by posting photos of customer receipts, or the disgruntled worker seeking to make a social media splash by anonymously publishing top-secret materials.

Clearly, your business and its reputation depend on your ability to maintain the integrity of confidential information and limit the dissemination of possibly embarrassing content. For this reason, it is extraordinarily important for your social media policy to specifically define and delineate what may and may not be posted online.  

Office Drama

Like Vegas, what happens in the office should stay in the office – at least in terms of office drama. Unfortunately, employees all too often turn to social media to express frustrations and vent about chatter at work. This is a problem because social media posts never go away – even if deleted, they can almost always be recovered and traced to the author. Thus, negative posts about your office – including behind the scenes drama – remain on the Internet forever and could become a permanent part of your overall social media narrative. The upshot: there is even more reason for your social media policy to address these kinds of negative posts and their potential ramifications. 

Passwords and Security

Your corporate social media accounts may be significant marketing tools for your business, if not your primary ones, which means measures must be taken to prevent hacking. If hacked, you could find your company tweeting conspiracy theories from the dark corners of the Internet or promoting a competitor’s brand. It is important, therefore, to have strict access and password policies in place, making sure that only a select few have the credentials necessary to log into your accounts. And remember, if someone with access leaves your employment, it is essential to change all social media passwords.

Guidance From the National Labor Relations Board

In 2010, the National Labor Relations Board addressed growing concerns regarding employer social media policies and permitted use of the platform by employees. The NLRB ultimately released three separate memoranda on the topic, which essentially stressed that a company’s social media policy cannot prohibit “protected concerted activity,” which gives employees the right to act together to try to improve their pay and working conditions. As such, posts, including pictures, displayed on social media that promote group action, or express group concerns about employment, are not subject to restriction. This is not to be confused with an offhanded gripe, which remains fair game for employer control. Companies must take care to work within these guidelines when crafting their own social media policies.

The Takeaway

Properly designed, a social media policy, which can be set forth in your employment agreement, employee handbook or other training materials, establishes clear standards for corporate and personal social media use without being overly restrictive and burdensome. If done right, the policy will also set expectations for social media use from the onset of an employee’s employment, and reduce the chances of social media mishaps, all the while allowing your company to reap the benefits of a positive social media footprint.

This blog post is not offered as, and should not be relied on as, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.