Staying ahead in the social media jungle

The explosion of social media over the last few years has provided a unique opportunity for marketers to connect with their peers and clients in a more direct way than ever before. However, Emma Humphries, associate at international law firm Simmons & Simmons points out that breaking down the barriers of communication can have pitfalls too.

On account of their informal nature and the emphasis on responsive, targeted communication, social networking sites make it easy for customers to build brand awareness and loyalty.

With the benefits of this approach also comes the risk of disgruntled customers publicising their grievances. A robust “notice and take-down” policy gives businesses control to deal with unwanted content and comments, as well as being a tool to manage liability in respect of user generated content (for example, if a customer makes a defamatory remark on a business website and the company fails to remove such content, they may be liable). There is, however, a significant PR risk of policing negative comments harshly.

As Nestlé has learnt since its Facebook disaster, it is important to set out controls for staff who are communicating with customers via social networking sites; otherwise the implications can be far-reaching.

It is all too easy, for example, for an employee to disclose confidential information, post illegal content or cause negative PR. Other recent examples include Virgin Atlantic sacking 13 cabin crew after they used Facebook to call passengers “chavs” and claimed that the airline’s planes were full of cockroaches; this proves that what goes online does not simply stay online.

Cookies and emails

Most people may be vaguely familiar with cookies being stored on their computers. Cookies and tracking technology are used to analyse web traffic, to recognise customers and speed up interactions, and if a company’s email has been forwarded on by the original recipient. Storing information on users’ equipment is usually prohibited unless the user is provided with clear information about the purpose, and given the option to refuse the storage. This rule does not apply to cookies, however.

Businesses can take steps to ensure they aren’t breaking the law by explaining in their emails, or on their website, that a tracking device is used (and say how to switch it off). A link to the company’s privacy policy explaining the purpose of the storage should be easily accessible.

Sending unsolicited emails for direct marketing purposes is also illegal. The law states that the subscriber must give consent to receive such communication. Furthermore, the subscriber must have been given the opportunity to refuse at the time the details were collected and also given an opt-out option in each message sent to him/her. The sanctions for failure to comply are serious; fines may be payable by the marketer and it is a criminal offence to fail to comply with an enforcement notice from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

A common issue is with the “refer a friend” part of a website where customers are asked to invite a friend to receive the services, often receiving some form of incentive in return. If the friend hasn’t given consent, then the ICO may interpret this as the company encouraging the consumer to break the law, or a direct breach of the law by the marketer. The minimum recommended procedure is to a) ask the consumer if they have obtained consent from their friend; b) check that the friend hasn’t previously opted out; and c) inform the consumer that the business will inform their friend how they received their contact details and give them the option to stop the referral process.

Winning in the social media world

There’s no doubt that social media has become a crucial part of the marketing mix, and one that promises huge returns. As several high profile cases have shown, however, threats of libel, copyright and data protection security could be even more serious and costly than a PR disaster. Companies should resist the temptation to dive into social media head-first, and instead engage with full risk assessments and regular, in-depth monitoring of the social media landscape in order to succeed.

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