Twitter celebrated its seventh birthday on 21 March and, with an estimated 1.2 billion Twitter accounts now registered, 200 million active users and 400 million tweets sent each day, it is more important than ever that businesses have stringent social media policies in place.
With the majority of businesses using social media regularly as a tool for self-promotion, interaction with clients and even recruitment, it is easy to forget that potentially millions could read the message you are composing.
The law of defamation concerns the publishing of statements that harm the reputation or character of someone resulting from the false statements or actions of another, and it is crucial to remember that the law treats the online world much as it does the real world.
In other words, every tweet is potentially a fresh publication for defamation purposes, and anyone who tweets a defamatory statement could be held liable for damages. Businesses must be aware because every tweet sent from a work-linked account could attract vicarious liability.
Unfortunately, it does not stop there and even comments on personal accounts might bring a business into disrepute if they can be linked back, which also demonstrates how vital it is for employers to have clear policies and training in place to deal with social media activity.
The misuse of social media has also led to numerous publicised dismissals. A report obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that 11 civil servants at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have been sacked for misusing Facebook or Twitter since January 2009, while a further 105 employees have faced disciplinary action.
A social media policy should ideally include detailed information on what staff should and shouldn’t say and do on social media, privacy settings that need to be enacted, how to react to requests for references and what to do if an adverse comment is published.
Because of the nature of social media, it is very difficult to abolish the use of it altogether and this may well be counterproductive anyhow because it offers an abundance of benefits.
However, it has to be used correctly and appropriately if these benefits are to be seen. Therefore, when employees are encouraged to use social media as part of their job, employers are advised to have a ‘best practice’ guide available. Appointing a ‘social media’ officer or champion as a point of contact for those in doubt is also highly advised.
Crucially, once a social media policy is drawn up it is important that it is not simply locked away in the store cupboard and out of employees’ sight. It must be easily accessible and well publicised to ensure that all staff members are fully aware of their responsibilities when it comes to using social media.
Even if your resources are limited and social media isn’t a primary tool for your business, the costs of not being in control of it within your company are too big to be ignored.
By Lee Calver of employment law specialists Workplace Law