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4 Steps To Avoid Social Media Landmines

Many business owners are embracing social media for marketing and customer retention, but don't guard against legal exposure and threats to business reputation. Get started with these four steps.

Resource Nation provides how-to purchasing guides, tips for selecting business service providers via VoIP Service, and a free quote-comparison service that allows business owners to compare price and service offerings in over 100 categories from online marketing to credit card processing.

You can't yell "fire" in a movie theater or "bomb" on a plane. But what if you Tweet it? A British man is finding out. Last month, Paul Chambers was arrested after airing his frustration in a Twitter post about weather-induced airport closure. Upon learning the airport where his flight was scheduled to depart was closed, he Tweeted this:

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high."

British police arrested Chambers under the Terrorism Act; he is currently out on bail. Although Chambers was not serious with the threat, the British government appears to be taking the Tweet seriously. Besides getting arrested, his iPhone and computers were confiscated for further investigation of terrorist acts.

Last year in Illinois, Amanda Bonnen vented her frustration with her apartment complex by Tweeting:

"Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay."

The apartment management company, Horizon, sued Bonnen for $50,000 claiming defamation because Bonnen's Tweet was publicly accessible. Bonnen's attorney filed a motion to dismiss, citing a 2009 study of Twitter in which more than 40% of tweets were found to be "pointless babble." In the end, the Illinois court ruled in Bonnen's favor, saying that "the Tweet in question didn't meet the Illinois standard for defamation on numerous grounds, including that Tweets are considered opinion in the social context and that the message lacked factual context and verifiable facts."

Given the unfiltered immediacy and booming popularity of Twitter, it was only a matter of time before Tweets ran afoul of the law. The "pointless babble" motion notwithstanding, there's a dearth of legal precedent for regulating conduct on Twitter or any other social network. The lack of formal guidelines puts the onus on businesses owners to police how your employees use social media from Twitter to Facebook to Foursquare and to monitor what customers and competitors say about your business.

  1. Establish guidelines -- Establishing a policy for social media usage is an important first step. It will guard against your employees Tweeting something that you're your sued or posting a secret product launch to their Facebook page. Simply by letting employees know what is and isn't appropriate to say about the company, not to mention your competitors, can go a long way toward mitigating future problems.
  2. Monitoring activity -- Monitoring is also crucial and requires constant vigilance. Regular monitoring of social media will allow you to see what's being said about your business and watch for fraudulent messages, fake accounts that lure customers to phishing sites, links harboring viruses, and myriad other threats that could be - legitimately or not - traced back to your company and warrant litigation.
  3. Recognize what's in your control -- As more and more businesses begin using social media for marketing, branding, and customer loyalty campaigns, the potential legal exposure only grows. For example, if your business runs a contest that requires private information from participants, you can claim you won't use the information for other purposes, but the social media site where you're hosting the contest isn't necessarily bound by policy. Make sure your disclaimer covers all the bases.
  4. Be transparent -- Product endorsements can also be rife with potential land mine. On this front there are at least some guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission that state: "bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement - like any other advertisement - is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims." When it comes to endorsement deals, honesty is the best policy. If you or any of your employees are pay or are paid to endorse a product or service, disclose it and spare your business the possibility of conflict.

Ultimately, the policy or guidelines on social media usage will be different for every business. Some companies shut down use entirely and don't allow employees to use social media sites at work while others embrace them. It is up to you as a business owner to weigh the potential liabilities and benefits for your company and develop guidelines that serve your needs.

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Shannon Suetos is a writer based in San Diego, CA. She writes extensively for Resource Nation, an online resource that provides expert advice on purchasing and outsourcing decisions for small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Resource Nation provides how-to purchasing guides, tips for selecting business service providers via VoIP Service, and a free quote-comparison service that allows business owners to compare price and service offerings in over 100 categories from online marketing to credit card processing.

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