Corporate Social Networking Liability? – 12/30/12

The Risks And Liabilities From Corporate Social Networking


Corporate Social Networking Liability?Social media has quickly become an important medium and communication channel for companies and organizations. Its growth, in fact, has arguably been faster than the general understanding of its power, potential, reach and risks, and certainly faster than the oversight and regulations available today to protect brands and their followers. But change is on the horizon.

New and existing watchdog organizations, oversight groups and regulators including organizations like the Australian Advertising Standards Board, the SEC and the FDA, have all declared their intent, taken action or were required to enforce guidelines designed to protect audiences and hold companies accountable for social communication.

Organizations today that build and run social media programs can’t be blind or claim ignorance of their responsibility and liability for the pages and accounts they own. By now, most social program experts recognize organizations like FINRA can be invoked to make sure what financial services companies and their employees say on behalf of the company comply to regulations. But this is just the beginning; FINRA and soon, other regulations will span well beyond a company’s responsibility for its own content and communications. For example, despite being called out for lagging behind, as of 2012 the FDA is now being required by law to produce and enforce guidelines on social interaction and drug company responsibility for third-party comments.

This next, rightful evolution is to hold organizations accountable for all of the content and communication on their owned social accounts – not just what they post, but the content shared by their fans, followers, friends – everyone. This means organizations will be held responsible for the content on their owned accounts regardless of source.  So, yes, the third party comments on a Facebook Page, Google+ Page, YouTube Channel, and more will be the page owner’s responsibility. That includes the private and regulated data people inappropriately provide about themselves, the abusive language, the bad images, the spam, and even the exploits. Since page owners and their brands sponsor this social forum’and host this place for interaction, they shouldn’t be surprised when they’re responsible for what happens there.

For example, the Australian Advertising Standards Board actively pursues companies that don’t take responsibility for the content on their owned social accounts and protect their audiences. In a recent case that’s still plaguing Foster’s and its parent company, Diageo, the board stated that in its role as an advertising platform, social media requires monitoring by the brand to make sure that offensive, user-generated material is removed in a reasonable timeframe and all content be subject to their code of ethics.

The Office of Fair Trading in the UK is also now watching Facebook content based on similar concerns, including advertisements with misleading content or that target an inappropriate age group. Even FTC rules from 2009 related to commenters endorsing statements, services and products, which require them to identify their relationship to a company must now be revisited. For example, if an employee, partner, consultant, or other person that has had any formal relationship with an organization provides a positive comment on a post or video and they don’t identify that relationship, the company could be in violation of FTC rules.

It’s not difficult to see where this is all headed, but just to crystalize the concept let’s take three hypothetical examples and apply some common sense to consider who’s accountable.

First, a large media organization with child-focused programming has YouTube channels, Facebook pages, and Google+ pages. In the publicly available comments to posts and videos on its owned accounts the brand has links to pornography, hate sites, commenters abusing and bullying other commenters, links to spam and malware, and personally identifiable information (e.g. phone numbers and email addresses) shared and displayed publicly.

In a second scenario, a healthcare organization has pages and accounts where its patients and members have commented with their protected health information, and other commenters have added solicitation links and diagnosis information.

Finally, a major sports organization with a long track record of promoting ethics and civic responsibility has accounts rife with publicly available comments that include hate, intolerance, links to abusive sites, and more.

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