By adaptive - August 15th, 2012

Social media like every other aspect of business activity is impacted by current legislation – none more so than within the already highly regulated industries. It’s important to understand the...

Social media like every other aspect of business activity is impacted by current legislation – none more so than within the already highly regulated industries. It’s important to understand the laws that govern the social media space so that your business thrives.

There is plenty of legislation that directly impacts the social media space and it is essential that businesses recognise, understand and work within these constraints to deliver social media strategies that prosper. Any business seeking to gain a commercial advantage through the use of social media needs to be aware of exactly what is, and what is not, permitted by law so that their marketing strategies can be correctly tailored and managed.

Sion Clywd Roberts is the Media and IP Specialist at London and Cardiff based Capital Law and he has identified the following legislation that directly impacts the social media space:

  • Copyrights, Patents and Designs Act 1988
  • Trade Marks Act 1994
  • Registered Designs Act 1949
  • Human Rights Act 1998
  • Crime and Disorder Act
  • Defamation Act 1996
  • Malicious Communications Act 1988
  • Communications Act 2003
  • Data Protection Act 1998
  • Employment Rights Act 1996
  • Equality Act 2010
  • Contempt of Court Act 1981

“There are various other pieces of UK and EU legislation that cover distance selling, advertising, and telecommunications to specific sectors to consider as well. However, law in this area is moving so fast that legislation is unable to keep pace,” says Roberts, “Much of the legislation in the social media space is being established through new case law.”

Jas Purewal, solicitor at Osborne ClarkeJas Purewal, solicitor at Osborne Clarke, agrees, “There isn’t a dedicated piece of legislation specifically regarding social media, but there are a number of different pieces that affect social media in different ways.”

In addition, Ross Breadmore, a consultant at NixonMcInnes adds that the 2010 Bribery Act and the increase in the remit of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in 2011 have impacted on the social media space. “On top of this,” he adds, “Some industry specific regulation, such as the Financial Services Authority, adds another layer. Businesses need to be aware of this legislation because, aside from any financial impact, penalties reflect badly in as much as the business looks clumsy and ill-informed, unable to get to grips with a growing medium.”

Legal eagles

Purewel warns, “Depending on the kind of social media usage involved, failure to comply with the law could result in a range of sanctions, from consumer complaints to regulatory investigation. The impact on consumers is particularly important, because it can be extremely hard to rectify.”

That there are restrictions on the social media space is a given, so how do businesses adapt to them to deliver strong social media campaigns? This question is especially pertinent in the financial sector that is highly regulated to begin with. Sion Clwyd Roberts says, “Businesses should seek specialist legal advice before embarking on a social media-based marketing campaign so that they are aware of the relevant legislation and can adapt their campaigns to minimise risk.”

Breadmore agrees, “Getting legal teams involved early is easier than pulling them in at the last stage for a quick sign-off, or worse, waiting for them to come to you when something goes wrong. If they are involved from the outset, they’ll be able to decipher whatever legislation exists and make sense of it from your business’ unique perspective.”

Jas Purewal believes that businesses need to make employees aware of the legal requirements surrounding the business use of social media. “Have a user-friendly social media policy as well as some form of guidance and an approvals process if employees are unsure about how to use social media in specific situations,” he says, “Employees should have guidance on when and how it is appropriate to distribute business information via social media, for example.”

Legal communications

David Lowy, VP Product Management, Moxie SoftwareDavid Lowy, VP product manager at Moxie Software says, “Social media needs to be handled like another communication channel. Conversations with customers that start on Twitter or Facebook can be moved to phone or email to ensure privacy or confidentiality. The challenge most organisations face is that they don’t consider social media as another communication channel and as a result don’t provide adequate training.”

Social media should be considered in the same light as publishing in a newspaper or magazine – it is a broadcast conversation to a potential base of millions – and so it must be transparent, clear and something that would be said to a person’s face. “Legal issues arise when people forget that it is a conversation broadcast to millions,” says Rogers, “The recent furore created by a conservative MP who called the Olympics Opening Ceremony ‘Leftie crap’ is a good example of how a second’s lapse in judgement can have serious consequences.”

The legislation that governs social media should not be seen as a barrier to creating effective media campaigns. Any business aiming for a solid social media strategy within a regulated industry needs to understand the parameters and how best to exploit them.

“Heavily regulated sectors such as Financial Services and Legal Services need to be fully compliant as a matter of course,” adds Rogers: “Their presence on social media is nothing to fear but any posts must be carefully considered as the negative publicity from any errors can be enormous. Social media comes into its own when meaningful two-way dialogue takes place. This is true for highly regulated and non-regulated industries alike.”

“The proper tools, processes and training will ensure that social media can be used effectively with limited organisational risk,” says Lowy, “It is important to develop, enforce, communicate and update social media policies for the entire organisation.

How an organisation interacts with its customers and responds to complaints or issues will be the measure of how the public perceive them and this level of interaction can be achieved successfully regardless of how regulated the industry. To forge a solid social media campaign that abides by the law, a business must understand what these laws mean for their specific industry, build solid guidelines and support for those using social media within organisation, and maintain open interaction with high levels of customer service.

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