A Social Media Policy: Better To Have One Now Than Later

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I am definitely a fan of employees and volunteers using social media to further a non-profit’s mission. Particularly since the success of many organization’s has depended on the ability to create an internet presence. However, while the impact of websites such as Facebook and MySpace has been mostly positive, with increased use comes increased legal exposure.

In order to mitigate this exposure I’ve suggested, like many others, that non-profit’s have a social media policy in place. By doing so, not only are they able to structure the social media culture within the organization, but they are also able to establish the organization’s stance in case litigation ensues. I know, I know. Just like an attorney to be worried about litigation. But the reason we worry about it all the time is because it happens. All the time.

So, if you haven’t already thought about a social media policy, consider some things I think non-profit organization’s should be concerned about.

1. Employees posting disparaging remarks. I think we’ve all seen the “I hate my boss” or the, “The Executive Director is a turkey” status updates. And though people are entitled to exercise their right to speak freely, this should not preclude organizations from making it clear that such harassing or disparaging remarks will not be tolerated. Remarks like this can easily go to far, resulting in inaccurate claims, accusations and possibly a defamation suit.  Especially if the remark is made about a competitor or a client.

2. The disclosure of confidential information. Whether by accident, or purposeful, it is easier than ever for secrets to be spilled to thousands of people. In the legal world there has been a huge increase in cases where attorneys have violated attorney-client privilege, and jeopardized cases, behind things said on Facebook. Disclosure doesn’t have to be as blunt as posting that X non-profit has X contract for X amount. It could be as harmless as someone saying, “Gee, I’m glad we got that product agreement sewed up.” If someone knows what it is the organization does, or who they deal with, that just might be enough.

3. The organizations online reputation. The line between a non-profit  and its people is very thin. More often than not, when volunteers or employees post things they are perceived as representatives either speaking on behalf of an organization or representing  an organizations mentality. Consequently, say an employee’s Facebook or Twitter profile picture has them wearing X non-profit’s shirt, and that employee makes a racy or discriminatory remark. The community will likely perceive such remarks as an indication of how that non-profit operates, what they condone, or the way they think. Even if the post is something that the organization doesn’t even adhere to.

4. Social media posts can serve as evidence in court. Many courts have begun to find that FaceBook, Myspace and Twitter pages can be used as evidence at trial. Before a case is tried in court, there is a phase called “Discovery” where both sides compile evidence necessary for them to win in court. In recent cases, Courts have found that Facebook pages may be used as evidence, despite security protections that may be in place. So let’s say an employee claims they were fired for discriminatory reasons. If a supervisor were to then post a discriminatory remark as a status, that remark could be used in a case against the organization for wrongful termination. Even if the organization had no knowledge or the supervisor’s profile only allowed friends to see it.

For pointers on drafting a social media policy, Inc.com has a great article. It helps to first determine what type of social media culture you want your organization to have. TechSoup has a good discussion on how to revamp or shape the social media culture within a non-profit. For examples of what others have done a database of social media policies can be found here and hereNon-Profit Law Blog also lists resources that non-profit’s can use when trying to determine what direction their own policies should take while SocialFish discusses the risks that should be considered. For those who still haven’t jumped on the social media bandwagon, Beth’s blog has a really good discussion on the positive aspects of social media and how non-profits can use it to their advantage.

Also, note that the buck doesn’t just stop with creating the policy. Once policies are in place, non-profit’s should designate an individual to answer any questions employees might have about something they want to post. Someone should also be responsible for educating employees on how social media should be used. By doing so not only can you see to it that individuals adhere to the policies, but you can help enhance the interface time employees have with thousands of people thereby maximizing the organizations impressions.

Lastly, realize that failure to adhere to policies does not necessarily mean a non-profit can terminate someone. People do all the time, but there is a case currently pending now where The National Labor Relations Board backed an employee allegedly fired for complaining about her boss on FaceBook. This could possibly give a definitive answer but only time will tell. For now, its at an organizations discretion. Also, if an employee were to complain about not being paid overtime, they could fight termination because the post reveals illegal activity. Inc.com has a great article on this here.

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