Employment-Related Issues with Social Media Marketing Accounts

With the enduring popularity of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, companies large and small are looking to connect with the social media market and use it to their marketing advantage. However, with social media marketing can come employment-related headaches that aren't always anticipated.

So, here's the scenario. You've assigned an employee the task of managing your company's social media presence. The employee works to promote the company's brand and products/services via company-owned and maintained blogs and websites as well as through third-party applications such as Twitter and Facebook. The social media campaign successfully garners numerous "friends" and "followers." Everything is going gang busters... until the employee resigns unexpectedly or is terminated and you realize you are unable to access the social media sites managed by the employee.

So what exactly are the issues you need to think about when rolling out a social media campaign?

A significant issue a company could encounter when placing its social media marketing in the hands of an employee is lack of access. In too many situations, only one employee has the log-in information or the administrative rights to access and update social media content. Now, suddenly that employee is gone and so is access to the accounts, leaving the company vulnerable, at least until the IT department can re-route access (which may be no easy task if you are dealing with a third-party social media site such as Twitter). In addition to losing access, a disgruntled employee can cause a lot of damage while the company scrambles to take down a page, block access, or gain control of the account. In the meantime, the company's reputation and valuable marketing asset--its "friends" and "followers"--may have been compromised.

It is imperative that, in any social media marketing campaign, senior managers or company owners have the log-in and passwords associated with all accounts. In addition to ensuring that someone in management has the necessary information to maintain and control the account, employers may be able to implement system settings that provide alert notifications when a password has been changed. Employee handbooks and policies also should carefully detail requirements for employees to disclose passwords and provide advance notification before changing any login information.

Another concern is content. Specific review protocols should be in place to ensure that inappropriate or confidential information is not posted or disseminated through social media. For instance, for employees who blog or post about company products, the Federal Trade Commission mandates that employees must disclose that they work for the company and cannot appear to be regular customers. Review procedures should also be in place to ensure that postings and content made on behalf of the company are in line with the company's image, do not violate workplace policies such as confidentiality or discrimination policies, and do not open the door to potential company liability.

The bigger, potentially more expensive, issue is ownership. If ownership terms are not specifically spelled out in the employment contract, a dispute could arise as to whether or not the accounts and, more importantly, the "friends" and "followers" belong to the company or the person who cultivated them. The ownership issue is particularly blurred if the employee launches the company accounts using a database that he/she already cultivated prior to joining the company, or if, for instance, employees use personal Twitter handles--exclusively or in addition to the company handle--when communicating on behalf of the company.

Some general tips for employers looking to protect their social media assets include:

  • Specifically outline in the employment contract and policies who owns what.
  • Establish accounts using the company name in the handle or account name.
  • Require ongoing disclosure of all passwords and log-in information.
  • Review the terms of service of all third-party social media sites to ensure your ownership and access protocol is adequate to protect your interests.
  • Develop guidelines for social media content and oversight.
  • Implement internal technology systems and controls favorable to protecting your access and control of such sites.
  • Train your employees and supervisors who have social media-related responsibilities on the applicable policies and protocol.

As previously mentioned, this is a new area for many companies, as well as for the courts; however, the existence of clear policies and agreements setting forth the parties' rights relative to social media often go a long way in resolving such disputes. In addition, it is always good to consult with experienced legal counsel to ensure such policies meet legal, as well as operational, concerns.

To reach Susan, call 216-928-2936 or e-mail sanderson@walterhav.com.