Small businesses are no strangers to social media. In fact, the last few years have seen a rapid adoption of social media usage among small business owners. Now that social media is clearly established as an effective business tool, and not just a fad among kids, legal implications of social media use are starting to emerge.
Unfortunately, some attorneys advise their business clients to avoid social media use but avoidance can hurt the business and company brand just as much, and possibly more, than actual social media use. The myriad benefits that social media offers to small businesses far outweigh the risks in most instances.
So how can small businesses engage in social media in a way that benefits the company and avoids potential liability? By taking a common sense approach:
- Mindfulness. Many small business owners are accustomed to getting press; whether they appear in a magazine or a local TV news segment. In the same way that thought goes into communication to the press, thought should go into each Facebook status update or tweet posted by the business. Attorney Jay Shephard puts it another way, “assume that the person you most want not to see it . . . will see it.” Small business owners can feel free to connect with the public by posting about their personal hobbies, stories of satisfied customers or details about new products or services and leave the controversial and questionable topics aside.
- Good Counsel. Many old school lawyers advise clients to be risk-averse when it comes to social media while having little familiarity with social media tools. While much of social media law remains to be developed, there are precautions that can be taken, such as creating a company-wide social media policy and complying with FTC disclosure requirements. When seeking legal advisors for social media activity, its best to engage a lawyer that is not only familiar with social media law but also active with social media tools.
- Transparency. Bad press should not be ignored. I recently heard an attorney recommend that business clients buy all the possible negative domain names to prevent critics from publishing negative content about their companies (for example, purchasing www.XYZCompanySucks.com). That is unrealistic advice. Social media makes it incredibly easy for negative reviews to be shared and publicized and no amount of avoidance is going to negative-content-proof any company. The small business with a social media presence has the ability to tactfully address and counteract negative publicity head on. Social media savvy business owners also have an added edge when addressing such negativity because he or she has already established a positive reputation online.
These simple precautionary steps can make a small business owner’s social media engagement rewarding for his or her company while also significantly limiting the risks.
This article first appeared in YFS Magazine.