Can a business get sued for what they say on social media?

Kathryn Hawkins

Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter can be a great way to broaden your social circle and communicate with friends—and, if you run a business, they can help you reach out to potential customers.

But, while these networks have a lot of potential to help you, they can also hurt you if you aren't careful about what you say there.

How a business can protect again social media liability

business social media liabilityHere are four tips about what not to say on social media—and how you can protect yourself from potential liability issues.

1. Don't write a false statement about someone else—even as a joke.

Because social media seems like a casual medium, you might feel inclined to use the platform to make jokes about your business competitors without any risk.

However, "social media users need to understand that everyone who publishes content online faces the same risks and responsibilities that used to only be the concern of ‘media' companies," says Brian Wassom, a lawyer who focuses on social media liability. That means that if you write anything on a social media platform that is knowingly false and could negatively affect someone else's business or reputation, you could be sued for libel.

To play it safe, follow the old adage: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything.

2. Don't disclose any information that you're not authorized to discuss.

Sometimes, even if you're not thinking about it, you might leak information that a client or employer wanted to keep confidential—and that could open you up to a lawsuit. Ben Cober, director of business development and research for the amusement park consulting firm PGAV Destinations, says that the company's clients don't always allow them to publicly talk about their roles in projects.

"We work very hard to reinforce this with our staff and our sub-contractors, but we always run the risk of one of our staff members not knowing the extent of confidentiality of a particular project, and publically commenting on social media" Cober says.

3. Don't infringe upon another company's copyrights or trademarks.

It's also important to avoid making any use of another company's logos, trademarked images, or other copyrighted material except as permitted under "fair use" guidelines, such as academic content focused on analyzing a brand logo or image.

When mentioning another brand name, make sure it's clear that you're not connected to the company or claiming credit for the company's products or images.

"Be especially wary if you're promoting a product or brand of yours on social media, and comparing it to other brands," says Joseph Becker, a copyright attorney in New York City. "However, mentioning another's trademark to describe it for what it is, namely, that other's trademark and not your own) is a fair use of trademark, and is allowable."

4. Don't make a joke or spread a rumor that could cause a public safety risk.

If you think it's funny to make a joke about a bomb in a school or airport, you mightn't be so amused when the police come knocking on your door. "Any liability that applies in print or open air situations applies in the social space," says Dan Farkas, an instructor of strategic communication at Ohio University. He adds that you can't cause panic in a social media situation any more than you can yell "Fire!" inside a crowded theater.

Think about the impact of your statement before you Tweet or share an update on Facebook or your blog. Anything you put out in the public sphere is liable to cause problems for you if it induces others to panic or to act aggressively.

How to protect against liability

If you work in a field that requires you to frequently engage in comments on social media platforms and blogs, such as an online journalist or a social media manager for a company, it could be worth purchasing a media perils insurance policy. Such a policy covers defense and settlement fees for lawsuits that accuse policyholders of libel, slander, defamation, violation of right of privacy, piracy, unfair competition or infringement of copyright, title or slogan. The policies typically cost anywhere from $350 to $2,000 per year, depending on the insurance company's analysis of your risk level. If you let the policy lapse, you will not be covered for legal fees - even if they arise from something you wrote at the time you had the coverage.

If you don't want to pay for an insurance policy to protect you from social media liability, the best solution is common sense. In general, it's as important to be careful what you say in social media as it is in the real world.

"You need to assume your name will be known for anything you ever say online and that your mom, the Pope and your boss will have access to anything you ever write online," Farkas says.

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