The dark side of social media

A few weeks ago, a blogger who posted defamatory comments about a local landfill owner on the website of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune newspaper was revealed to be a Federal prosecutor. In December, three young Congressional aides decided to get drunk at the office every day and tweet about it, not as anonymously as they—or their boss, Representative Rick Larsen–might have hoped. Last winter a staffer at the Red Cross slipped up, accidentally alerting the organization’s Twitter followers that he was about to get “slizzerd” on expensive beer.

As nonprofits that raise money and rally support online, we’re generally focused on the benefits of social networks. But what about the risks? The cloak of online anonymity can easily be raised, and lines between business and pleasure accidentally crossed. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that law firms specializing in social media law are on the rise.

You can’t completely protect yourself from the dark side of social media, but you can minimize the chance that a disgruntled or careless employee will damage your nonprofit’s reputation. (Or worse, lead to a libel or harassment lawsuit.) A social media policy is a good place to start. What to think about if you don’t already have one?

1. Understand and communicate the importance of the policy. For example, employees should know that information posted in social media can be used as evidence in a court of law. Also, actions taken by employees can be held against an employer, on the clock or off. And you might also remind your staff that there’s really no such thing as “anonymous”—deleted data can almost always be recovered using cyber forensic tools.

2. Require that personal postings be carefully distinguished from those of your organization, such as by using a disclaimer that the views and opinions expressed do not represent those of your organization. Also require employees to conduct official business only through the organization’s social media accounts and ensure that the organization’s accounts should not be used for personal affairs. Although employees may share your organizational positions and agenda, they should avoid even the perception that they’re speaking on behalf of your organization in unofficial communication.

3. Make ownership of your social media accounts explicit. Cases are on the rise in which employees leave an organization and take valuable social media content and contacts with them, resulting in disputes over who “owns” this information. Avoid confusion by clarifying that Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and other online contacts generated through your organization’s work belong solely to your organization.

3. Make clear that what’s illegal in the real world is also illegal in the virtual world. Your policy should prohibit:

  • Mishandling of intellectual property (with regard to both protecting yours and infringing on others’.)
  • Discriminatory statements, racial slurs, and sexual innuendo that can lead to hostile work environment and harassment claims.
  • Political campaign activity attributed to your organization, which can endanger your 501(c)(3) status.
  • Improper disclosure of confidential or proprietary information. If an employee blogs or posts information about a donor or constituent, she shouldn’t reveal any personally identifiable information about that person without authorization.

4. Make sure your social media fundraising complies with charitable solicitations laws. Most states require registration for nonprofits that solicit funds within their jurisdiction. In some states, just having a “Donate Now” button can trigger the registration requirement, as can social media fundraising activities. If your fundraising targets people who live in other states, be aware you are subject to their requirements as well as those where your organization is located.

5. Do not impose a draconian, unrealistic social media policy. Many organizations have tried to impose all-out bans on social media to avoid the risks, and have found themselves on the losing side of a lawsuit. Your policy should govern the prudent use of social media, not prohibit employees from participating. It should provide guidance on what employees can and cannot do in social media, both in their role as employees and in their personal use, and fit the mission, culture, and needs of your organization.

Got questions about social media? Get May 2 on your calendar and register for our annual conference! We look forward to seeing you at Powerful Networks: Nonprofits, Social Media, & Community, with some of the country’s leading voices in the field.

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