By now, social media is a part of every Internet marketing plan. In the past few years, social media has become fully integrated with many business websites. However, social media is fraught with legal traps for the unwary, such as liability for defamation and false advertising. One key to avoid these traps is for business owners to control access to social media accounts and to adopt policies governing their use.
Control Social Media
Unfortunately, I have had several business owners contact me after their employees or former employees have hijacked or misused the social media accounts that belong to a business. This includes company Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, and other social media accounts. This can easily happen if business owners are not familiar with the company’s social media accounts or delegate too much authority over those accounts to an employee. The employee gains user names and logins for these accounts. Sometimes the employee was responsible for maintaining these accounts, and sometimes the employee obtained the login information from someone in the company. It’s often too easy for a former employee to change the user names and passwords so that no one else can access the account and the company page. The motivations for doing this vary.
Regaining control over social media accounts can be difficult and frustrating. Of course, a company can sue its ex-employee and obtain a court order to turn over control. But that’s an expensive course and assumes that a former employee can (1) be located and (2) will obey a court order.
The other route is to notify the social media provider and request return of control. This can be an uphill battle. Providers like Facebook are notoriously unresponsive to such requests. Facebook once had a link on its site to report ownership issues but that link has been deactivated. Believe it or not, there is currently no direct way to bring such an issue to Facebook’s attention.
Other attorneys tell me that on the uncommon occasions when they could make contact with Facebook over these issues, it required multiple letters and other measures. Consider this: Facebook has about 20,000 employees, roughly one for every 100,000 users. One company had to send a cease-and-desist letter, arguing that its trademarks were being infringed because it no longer had control of the company Facebook page. Eventually, Facebook took down the entire page.
In short, the loss of control over a company’s social media can be frightening, expensive and frustrating.
The best of action is preventive. Of course, everything we advocate is preventive. In this case, it means spending some time and effort in understanding your social media accounts.
Own, Understand and Inventory Social Media Accounts.
The single most important thing you can do is to ensure that your company owns each and every social media account used in connection with the business. Establish specific business accounts that you manage and maintain. Do not permit employees to link a business account to a personal social media or email account. Instead, you can create an administrative email account that’s used specifically for managing the business social media with a recovery email address that enables you to regain control. Otherwise, an employee—even someone with good intentions—can basically link ownership of your social media account, a business asset, to the employee’s personal Facebook or Google account (or email). This gives the appearance of ownership to the employee and can make it difficult and costly for you to regain control.
Although a business owner can delegate the day to day use of these accounts to others, it’s crucial to inventory accounts and establish policies for how they are used. These accounts are assets of the company. For each account, the inventory should include user names and passwords, along with a list of authorized users and a document signed by the employee that outlines acceptable use.
Use Care in Assigning Roles.
In the case of Facebook, only the owner of a company, or a trusted officer, should be the administrator of a company page. If employees are assigned to add content to the page, then they should be assigned a lower status such as editor or advertiser. Only the owner should be administrator and hold the password for the page.
For other social media accounts, business owners should exercise care in assigning administrator roles. If any employee is leaving a company, be sure to terminate the employee’s access to the company’s website and any social media accounts long before that employee leaves. Add this to the company’s termination checklist, along with removing access to other assets like company computers and networks.
Actively Manage Social Media Accounts.
Social media accounts should be used as part of a marketing plan. The company should have a social media policy with clear guidelines within that marketing plan as to the use of the accounts and what is permissible content and use.
Actively monitoring the accounts is important since a company can be sued for misuse of social media. For instance, false “likes” and fake testimonials by people who are not customers is illegal false advertising. Disparaging a competitor or competitor’s products can be defamation. Making inflated claims about one’s products or services can be an unfair business practice. Monitoring the accounts will also ensure that the accounts are used legally and within your company’s plans.
Eric D. Morton, is the principal of Clear Sky Law Group, P.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 760-722-6582 or 510-556-0367.