In June, I had the great pleasure of attending the Corporate Social Media Summit in New York City, put on by Useful Social Media.  It was a fantastic event populated by the people in charge of social media for some of the world’s biggest and most influential companies, in industries across the spectrum.  Those who spoke shared insights that they’ve gained from their social media experiences, both positive and negative.  This group of highly sophisticated professionals truly represented the state of the art in corporate social media.

As such, their insights into best practices online carry significant weight.  Although no one speaker or panel focused specifically on the legal issues surrounding social media activity, they dropped several pearls of wisdom that are relevant to those issues.  Since I approach social media from a legal perspective, I drew from the speakers’ comments the following lessons on minimizing legal liability:


  • First and foremost, “it’s insane not to have a social media policy,” as one speaker put it.  “Your employees are going to use social media whether you like it or not,” said another, so define what they can and cannot do online.  Not only will this offer you a potential shield from liability if an employee violates those guidelines, but a social media policy is also an important mechanism for engaging your employees and educating them on your company’s overall social media philosophy.  Best Buy, for example, summarizes its entire policy with the tagline, “Be Smart, Be Respectful, Be Human.”
  • But don’t oversimplify your policy, either.  One speaker quipped that his company’s entire policy was the following: “Don’t do anything stupid.”  But subsequent presenters responded (and the Twitterverse appeared to concur) that this is not the right approach for most employers.  Cisco’s Andrew Warden, for example, observed that “stupid” means something different to a recent college grad than it does to middle-aged professionals.  Rather, as Paul Butcher, Head of Digital for Citi, suggested, pepper your social media policy with real-world examples, so that all employees can grasp what it is that they should and shouldn’t do.
  • Don’t restrict your employee’s online activities too harshly, either.  Setting aside the labor law liability that this can create, and the lost opportunities for enhancing your brand, an overly draconian policy may say more about your hiring practices than it does about social media.  As Gregory Weiss, A.V.P. of Social Media for New York Life Insurance, observed, “If you don’t trust your employees, maybe you’re hiring the wrong employees.”
  • Train employees who use social media the most.  Best Buy trains their online community representatives for an entire week, then monitors what they post for 90 days.  Gregory Weiss suggested that social media issues be raised at every new hire orientation.
  • Have a social media policy that governs how third parties can use your site, too.  This includes your Facebook page.  Coca-Cola has a nice, trim policy on its Facebook fan page that Ashley Brown, Coke’s Director of Digital Communications, encouraged attendees to copy.  But there are very few absolute rules that all companies must follow when crafting these policies.  For example, after a healthy discussion on whether it’s ever appropriate to delete a third party’s post on your corporate Facebook page, the apparent consensus was, “rarely, but sometimes.”  Other speakers suggested locking down your Facebook wall so that third parties can only comment on your posts, but not start posts of their own on your wall.
  • Keep track of what different employees and departments are doing online.  This is especially important in large, geographically dispersed companies.  Both Coca-Cola and Southwest Airlines require individual employees to sign their posts on the corporate Twitter accounts with their initials, making it easier to trace the author of a particular post on an account to which many individuals contribute.  (It also has the effect of humanizing the brand, as one speaker noted.)  Citi has an internal Sharepoint location where all employees must pre-register their intentions to launch a new social media site.  That allows every relevant department, including legal, to review those plans before they’re launched.
  • People will cheat in online games.  Tim McMahan, head of Union Pacific’s web team, learned this in running his company’s innovative  online contest.  Be prepared to handle it.
  • Finally, my favorite piece of advice: “Become close friends with your lawyer!“  Several other speakers echoed this sentiment, including Tom Hoehn, Director of Marketing for Kodak.  Citi’s Paul Butcher added that good legal counsel is essential for identifying the risks–because there will always be some risk–so that you can ultimately weigh those risks against the potential benefit to the business.  Coca-Cola’s Ashley Brown rightly noted that the legal world as a whole hasn’t yet caught up with new media, but also emphasized that part of their success is due to the support and flexibility of their legal team.  Coke has two lawyers entirely dedicated to its social media engagements.

For more insights from these speakers that go well beyond the legal context, check out these summaries of the event from other attendees:

Learning From Leadership at the Corporate Social Media Summit (quoting Yours Truly)

Success Lessons from Corporate Social Media Summit Part 1Part 2

65 Tweetable Moments From the Corporate Social Media Summit

10 Big Brand Lessons From the Corporate Social Media Summit

Or search Twitter for the hashtag #csmny.

Guest post by Brian Wassom.

Brian D. Wassom is a First Amendment lawyer in the broadest sense of the term. He litigates copyright, trademark, publicity rights, entertainment, and related IP issues, all of which involve drawing the boundaries of legally sanctioned monopolies over creative expression and otherwise-free speech. He also assists media companies and journalists in exercising their freedom of the press, by helping them obtain access to information and defending them from claims of defamation, invasion of privacy, eavesdropping, and the like. Brian advises religious organizations as well, whose rights to free exercise and separation from government are likewise enshrined in the First Amendment.

Brian authors the legal blog, which addresses the law of social and emerging media. A regular feature of that blog is "Augmented Legality," the world's first publication dedicated to analyzing the legal principles that will govern the revolutionary technology called "augmented reality."



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