From LegalZoom

The way consumers receive and consume information has dramatically changed over the past five years. Now, more than ever, consumers are turning to digital channels to keep in touch with friends, read the latest news, and engage with businesses. With 52 percent of online adults now using two or more social media sites, it’s no secret that social media is an important part of a company’s marketing and branding strategy.

With so much activity across social platforms, it’s important business owners develop a social media policy to ensure they are protected. A good social media policy should define guidelines for pushing out content via company channels, as well as the personal social media accounts of employees.

Coming up with a workable and legal social media policy is not an easy task; the law in this area is in a state of flux, with new laws being charted as cases are decided. States continue to enact legislation with the potential to impact social media issues, meaning there is no definitive set of agreed rules for crafting social media policies to which companies can turn.

Despite the uncertainty in this area, below are eight important components you should address in your company’s social media policy:

  1. Confidential information and trade secrets. Your policy should outline what information is considered to be confidential information or a trade secret that shouldn’t be shared online. This can be a confusing area, so give specifics if possible and encourage employees to ask questions if they are unsure.
  2. Trademark and copyright infringement. Whether employees are posting to official social media accounts or the company blog, it’s important that your social media policy help them understand how copyright applies, what is meant by the concept of “fair use” and how trademark infringement occurs.
  3. Defamation. If an employee posts something untrue about someone to one of your company’s social media accounts or your company blog, and damage is caused by the posting, your company will be liable. Your social media policy should include clear rules about defamatory content.
  4. Privacy issues. Your policy should clearly indicate that personal information about employees and clients should not be shared. In some cases, it may not be clear what constitutes personal information, so be specific and give examples. Along the same lines, photos and videos require that the proper releases are obtained from the people depicted in the photos or videos. Many states also have legislation concerning employee privacy issues, and your policy should ensure that any applicable legislation is not violated.
  5. Securities laws and regulated industries. If your company is subject to securities legislation or other industry regulation, your policy should outline all applicable rules and restrictions.
  6. Employee safety issues. Content which may put an employee at risk should not be posted or shared. Depending on the particular situation, this can include location-specific social networks such as Foursquare.
  7. Workplace violations. Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employees’ rights to protected, concerted activity are protected, regardless of whether the employees are union or non-union. In order to avoid violating NLRA provisions, your policy cannot prohibit employees from discussing things like wages and working conditions.
  8. Ownership of social media accounts. Your policy should clearly outline who owns official social media accounts. While this is often clear in the case of specific company social media accounts, in other situations—for example, when employees run company-sponsored accounts under their own usernames—ownership of such accounts needs to be clarified.

When developing your company’s social media policy, it’s important to remember that, under the laws of agency, the more you try to control, the more you increase your risk of liability. What does this mean? Basically, if your social media policy is very broad and attempts to exert control over what your employees can and cannot post on their personal social media accounts, you are generally more likely to be held liable for the content of such accounts.

Employees should also be reminded of the FTC disclosure rules. While it’s great to have employees who are your “brand ambassadors”, if they are posting reviews of your company or your products on their personal accounts, they should adhere to the FTC disclosure rules and make it clear that they are employees of your company.

Before you officially finalize and implement your company social media policy, it is also a good idea to check out how other companies are drafting theirs. Many businesses post their social media policies online. For example, you can read Coca Cola’s social media principles here, Ford’s digital participation guidelines here and Walmart’s social media guidelines here.

Beyond a Policy:

Handing your employees the policy manual may not be enough. Given the immediacy of social media and how quickly a tweet, post or status update can become viral, you may want to consider implementing social media training to ensure your employees understand the issues addressed in your policy.

It’s also crucial to answer all employee questions. As simple as that sounds, while a policy can set out rules covering a number of situations and provide employees with guidelines, even the best policies won’t address every potential situation that might come up. Delegate this role to someone whom employees trust and can turn to when a sticky situation comes up.

LegalZoom is an online provider of personalized, online legal solutions and legal documents for small business owners and families. Follow them at @LegalZoom.