Social etiquette

The risks and rewards of online networking, and why a social media policy is crucial to your business
By Matt Johnson
February 22, 2012
COMMERCIAL : LEGAL

Today's glass companies are looking to make more with less, and one way they are doing so is with social media. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn present opportunities to get information about your company to an audience far beyond the local paper or phone book, greatly increasing your marketing power, recruiting scope and customer relations for little to no cost. On the other hand, social media can present serious risks and liabilities for companies using, and failing to control, their online presence.

Some risks are easy to see: posting false information on a competitor's website, for example, can lead to accusations of corporate slander. But some are not. Case in point: A federal court in New York recently held that a customer list prepared, and then stolen, by an employee of an executive consulting firm was not a trade secret because the information on the list was readily available through social media sites.

The reality is that every company needs a social media policy. The benefits far outweigh any minor cost in its creation and maintenance. And while a social media policy is not a shield for bad behavior, it can be an affirmation of a company's values at all levels.

The risks
We encounter social media every day, some of us more than others. You might not be a blogger or have a Facebook page, but that does not mean others aren’t using social media to search for you or post information about your company. The Internet's power cannot be ignored, and social media affects everything from project information, to sales relationships, to personnel policies.

Project logs, specifications, schedules and other circulated job information can find their way online, as project managers increasingly use websites and job boards to post change orders, gather information and link to materials outside the project itself. You must have a control policy in place to regularly review job information posted online, so that you can ensure your employees and sub-trades are appropriately pushing a project toward a coordinated completion. If you do not, you can run into problems. A back-charge claim for damages becomes much harder to defend, for example, if you cannot show your company accessed the then-current plans posted online as the work was performed.

In today’s marketplace, companies are measured as much by their web presence as the product they sell. And this can cause problems when employees try to bolster or puff up their company on Internet boards, blogs and commentary sites. It can also cause problems when an employee promotes a product online without revealing his or her relationship to the company that manufactures it. The Federal Trade Commission monitors and enforces online advertising just like more traditional forms of advertising and requires disclosure of any relationships between an online endorser and the company about whom they post information online. So, if your sales personnel visit industry blogs and sing your company’s praises without revealing they work for you, then your company could be exposed to claims for lost contracts due to misrepresentation or market manipulation.

Social media also directly impacts a company's relationship with current and future employees―and its liability. What happens when cyber-bullying between employees is discovered, regardless of whether it occurs on company time or on company computers? Can a company face hiring discrimination claims based on Facebook entries or web searches? Could your company's proprietary internal information end up online, with open access? The legal risks vary depending on the situation, but companies can help protect themselves by ensuring a good social media and Internet policy is in place.

Old paper for new technology
So, what is a social media policy? Let's start with what it is not: It is not a one-size-fits-all policy. Technology―and a company’s interaction with that technology―change too fast for specific rules regarding required behavior. Indeed, specific website or media direction within a policy will likely become quickly outdated. Rather, some simple statements about common sense and decency can make up most of a good policy. Mix in some specific company values and business needs, and you have the recipe for a basic social media policy.

A social media policy is also not a user’s manual for just your company’s website, blog or Twitter feed. It should set expectations for employees as they navigate the entire online world. Employees visit other industry blogs or company websites for social purposes and information gathering. Your guidelines for how they should interact with those sites are at the core of a well conceived policy. 

To create your social media policy, start by identifying your company's Internet goals. Are they purely market-driven, or are you also looking to provide access to job or product information? Addressing potential problems and usage concerns in your social media policy requires knowing how your company interfaces with the online world. 

Then, distinguish between proper on-the-job Internet activities and off-the-job activities. Get your employees to stop and think about what they are posting, where they are posting it and why. Put guidelines in place for company postings, including who has authority to make those postings and what they can concern. The last thing a company wants is a tweet about a new job/product before management is ready to disclose that information.

Next, do not limit employee's lawful behavior, but advise them that what they do on-the-job might be monitored and recorded. Establish some general conduct goals when an employee has been authorized to speak on behalf of the company via social media. It might seem trite to tell your employees to be polite and avoid confrontation, but it is better to have told them what you expect than to argue to a jury they should have "figured it out." And it should go without saying that all employees are to report any suspicions of harassment, or illegal or criminal behavior to their supervisor.

Finally, establish some clear company guidelines for business-critical behavior. Recording postings, saving emails, protecting proprietary data and defining how social media is to be used are just a few examples of items that companies can tailor to their needs and business interests. Developing some common sense responses to real business risks might provide tangible benefits in the long term.

Ultimately, a social media policy should be only one piece of a company's document management puzzle. Integration with a records retention policy (project and financial) and claim management structure could realize cost savings. Integration with employee training policies will ensure that all employees know what is expected of them and what can serve as grounds for ending their employment. All of these might seem like luxuries in today's marketplace, but the hard costs of not having them can impact a company's existence much more than the transitory costs of their creation. And while no policy prevents all issues, it can anchor your company's expectations in the online storm.

The author is a member of The Gary Law Group, www.prgarylaw.com, a Portland-based firm specializing in legal and risk issues facing manufacturers of glazing products. Write him at matt@prgarylaw.com.

  • Key points

    Social media can present serious risks and liabilities for companies that fail to control their online presence.

    Social media affects everything from project information, to sales relationships, to personnel policies.

    A good social media policy is not one-size-fits-all. Nor is it a user’s manual for just your company’s website, blog or Twitter feed.