Social Media Guidelines: Legal Considerations

Friday, April 01, 2011

I am not an attorney, obviously, so the advice below should not be taken as legal advice. I do however have an attorney who specializes in digital media to make sure that I and my clients are always in compliance with the latest changes in legal issues as they relate to social media. Here are some of the things I have learned from my meetings with him and the materials he sends me. As always, consult your own attorney for specifics as they relate to your region:

1. Disclosing Material Connections

How will you disclose material connections or connections that benefit you in some way? In the United States, you now have to legally disclose them under the Federal Trade Commission’s code 16 CFR part 255. So, if you conduct a site visit or attend a fam trip and a hotel comps your stay, you have to disclose it when you post about them online, whether on your blog, Facebook page, YouTube or Twitter. If you get anything at a “deep discount” that has to be disclosed, too. If you’re a wedding vendor who is getting married and a photographer is shooting your wedding for free, or doing it at a significant discount (doing it at cost is considered a significant discount), then it legally has to be disclosed by both you and the photographer if it is posted online.

In your guidelines, decide how you will disclose these types of things. Will you have a disclosures page on your blog? What if you tweet about a client or a trip? How will that be denoted? (I use *C to indicate a tweet about a client.) How will you disclose posts about sponsors? Putting the word “sponsor” as a tag on your site doesn’t work because tags only show up on the main site, not in feeds (using super light text is also not kosher according to the FTC). Write your guidelines to reflect how things will be disclosed on every social media channel you use: blog, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, etc.

2. Libel, Slander and Defamation

Social media a great platform for openly sharing your opinion, but you still need to make sure you're not defaming another person or company when you post. Libel is written, slander is spoken. So libel would apply to any written form of social media, while slander would apply to any verbal form (YouTube, Vimeo, podcasts, etc). In short, the law says that you can't make defamatory statements that can be construed as factual but aren't. You also aren't off the hook just because you don't name someone explicitly - if someone can reasonably discern who you are talking about, your words can count as libel or slander.

You also can't make threats online: phrases like "I will ruin you" can be used against you in court (keep in mind that even if deleted, these posts can still be accessed). You also can't call someone a liar unless you have concrete proof that they are being dishonest. This isn’t as large an issue with blogs since they take more time to write, but firing off Facebook or Twitter status updates in anger or the heat of the moment can come back to bite you in the form of a lawsuit. Having your account set to private doesn't protect you legally, either. This section of your social media guidelines should make sure that your entire staff is aware of these legal issues so that your company doesn't get in trouble because of one employee.

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