Getting Legal and Marketing to Play Along in Social Media

Photo courtesy of Mark Kens on flickr open source. "Social Media Cloud by Techndu"(
Photo courtesy of Mark Kens on flickr open source. “Social Media Cloud by Techndu”(

Getting a company’s legal department and their marketing department to work together can seem like an exercise in futility. The acrimony between the two departments can be can be a drag on the overall business.  The marketing department wants to move ahead with its latest campaign, while legal is concerned with avoiding risk and mitigating possible lawsuits. Throw the legal risks of using social media into the mix, and acrimony between these two departments may increase exponentially.

The benefits businesses receive when using social media are essential in this day and age, but what are the negative impacts of not using social media? What happens when a company’s overly cautious legal department triumphs over their marketing department in terms of social media usage? There are very real risks and challenges involved with social media, and sometimes marketing and legal departments can’t come to a consensus regarding its use. Rather than create a comprehensive social media policy that covers a company’s legal bases (while building relationships with customers), a business may deem social media too risky.

Avoiding social media may satisfy risk-adverse businesses, but there are serious implications to ignoring the medium. Stunted growth, perceptions of poor customer service, and an indifference to new technology are ways that a limited social media presence can kill a business. Furthermore, a company’s employment brand may become damaged. Employees, who feel stifled by a restraint on their own social media activities, may leave the company. It becomes difficult for a business to hire and retain talented workers, especially if those workers take pride in mentioning their place of employment on social media. Allowing employees to engage on social media can make it easier for them to make a positive contribution to company’s brand, and can help discourage turnover.

First, let’s discuss legal and marketing departments, and why they may object to company’s social media presence.

A legal perspective against social media usage:

Legal departments are crucial in supporting businesses. They provide legal advice that includes litigation, intellectual property protection, regulatory compliance, business conduct and other corporate affairs. In short, legal departments ensure a company’s actions do not run afoul of the law, and that their legal bases are covered.

From a company’s legal perspective, social media usage can be a real nightmare for a variety of reasons.

Security concerns: Hackers can either take over social media accounts of a business, or their known employees. If passwords are shared, this could open up the door to a company’s customer and employee database being compromised by hackers. The entire debacle surrounding Sony is an excellent example.

Copyright infringement is another real problem if a business chooses to use content created by others. If a company uses a person’s likeness or positive review on a social media account, it may violate a customer’s right of privacy. For example, if a customer wrote a glowing review about a company’s service and the company used that testimonial without permission it could pave the way for litigation.

Terms and conditions: All social media platforms have their own terms and conditions when it comes to advertising. A failure to follow those requirements may result in an account being removed (talk about embarrassing!), and possible legal liability.

Employee liability: Employees who post on a company’s official social media accounts or those who represent a company on their own social media accounts can be a legal risk. If any employee makes a comment that offends customers, defames the competition, is false advertising, is deemed hate speech, or accidentally leaks sensitive information, the business can be held liable.

Trade Secrets: Any employee could accidently post trade secrets or other proprietary information on a social media account. If that information is re-shared and goes viral, it could present a major problem for the company.

Avoiding risk may take the form of not allowing employees to use social media outlets, even for personal use. For example, an employee may not be allowed to post on LinkedIn or Facebook. Maintaining such a strict policy may ensure employees never place their employer in a bad light, but such a move can inhibit workers from building a relationship with clients. Also, many company cultures that embrace social media enjoy the added value that a dynamic workforce offers. People who are “out in the world” can father much more intelligence and develop a greater perspective for their employer. Employees who are happy with their jobs can become major advocates for a company. Their pride and sense of purpose at work will manifest as genuine enthusiasm. In terms of official company accounts, if a business never engages with their customers on social media (especially when there’s a problem), their silence can be interpreted as aloofness or outright disdain.

I know a programmer for a company who is also an avid social media user. Being an employee of this company, he’s not allowed to mention he works for the company (or mention the company at all) on his social media accounts. I wouldn’t have known at all he worked for them if he hadn’t of casually mentioned it while we were at an Oktoberfest event. In talking to him privately, it turns out he loves working there. He values the company’s commitment to maintaining a racially diverse workforce, loves his work there as a programmer, and is being groomed for a promotion. Recently, this company has been getting a lot of bad press. We almost never hear about workers being satisfied with their jobs at this company. How different would our perceptions of this company be if employees were encouraged to share their experiences on social media? We may even give the company business or apply for a job there.

A marketing perspective in favor of social media:

Marketing departments are essential to generating sales leads, maintaining brand awareness, building customer relationships, and keeping an eye on long-term consumer trends. Without leads generated by marketing, a business wouldn’t have customers to sell to. It is crucial that marketing gets the word out about the products or services their company offers. Social media is just one of many tools marketers have at their disposal, and using it is essential to remaining engaged with customers.

Turning negative comments into a positive experience: Opening up on social media can potentially open the floodgates to a surge of negative comments. If a customer is unhappy with a product or service they won’t hesitate to voice their displeasure to family, friends and followers in their networks. Worse, having a presence on social media can invite hostile users to negatively comment, regardless of if they are a customer or not. No one wants to be on the receiving end of such criticism, warranted or not. A skill use of the medium can turn a potentially brand-damaging scenario, into a way to highlight a company’s excellent customer service.

Overcoming a major time sink: Marketing departments are already busy, especially if the business is small. Fielding comments, concerns and using the medium to blast out company information takes valuable time from other forms of communication. A company’s marketing staff knows the value of social media, and will often work usage into their daily schedule.

The target audience is shifting from traditional media to social media: A client-base using traditional media may be larger than the one using newer forms of media. That said, the audience is already using social media on a daily basis, and usage of the medium continues to grow each year. The interactive nature of the medium means its impact is far greater than traditional media’s.

There’s always something to say: A smart marketing plan consists of posting products and services on their social media accounts. The latest information is what customers’ value. Additionally, marketing campaigns can be creative and give their followers a sneak peek behind the scenes of their business. Other fun ways marketers can interact can is to conduct polls, have Q&A sessions, and ask clients for their direct thoughts on products and services.

Is it worth the ROI: Every business wants a Return on Investment. Even if using social media is free, it still requires time and effort from employees. If an increase in sales isn’t immediately apparent it may be tempting to ditch, or heavily limit social media usage. Social media usage goes far beyond the bottom line. The cost of not going to where an audience is can do far more damage to a brand, than spending the resources to conduct a comprehensive social media campaign.

The benefits that social media brings to a marketing campaign can’t be stated enough. A business that closes itself to social media will be left in the dust by the competition. Many customers take to social media in order to get a problem resolved or to further connect with a brand. Being absent on social media means a missed opportunity to resolve a bad experience for a customer, and a missed potential to turn them into brand advocates. Additionally, current (and future) customers on social media want to hear about service and product updates, and expect the majority of businesses to have an active social media presence. On the flipside, social media is an excellent way for marketers to gain valuable customer insights through feedback, monitor their competition, advertise company culture to potential employees, and generate customer leads for sales.

Inspiring collaboration between legal and marketing departments:

  1. Shift the top-down power structure to a more distributed system: Ultimately, management makes the final decision regarding the differences between legal and marketing departments. Allowing each department to organize themselves in a bottom-up structure means tensions between the groups can be processed locally.
  1. Allow this distributed system to splinter into smaller groups: Within particular departments not every individual will agree on the best actions to take regarding an issue. Very small groups in both legal and marketing may be able to collaborate and develop solutions for every aspect of a business plan.
  1. Allow self-organization within the groups: Again, the bottom-up approach can work well to diffuse tensions within a group, no matter how small.
  1. Allow internal organizations to share their problems with other groups: If each group can’t come to a consensus on how to deal with a problem, they can share their issues with other group. Imagine both departments and their differing goals, collaborating instead of fighting.
  1. Allow the structure of how issues are resolved to change: If the structure within a company isn’t working, the structure itself can be changed. Having such flexibility can avoid the trap of the same arguments that lead to fighting among the legal and marketing departments.

Five ways both groups can meet in the middle:

  1. Develop clear policies about how employees should conduct themselves on social media: Whether employers like it or not, their employees are going to use social media. Sometimes they may not have nice things to say about an employer, Discouraging social media usage isn’t good for a business, and in some cases it may even be illegal. Instead, formulate a comprehensive policy that covers what employees can and can’t talk about while mentioning their employer on social media. Make sure trade secrets, offensive comments, defamation, and other socially unacceptable actions are a “no-go” zone for online posting. A good rule of thumb to remember is to keep it courteous and professional. The consequences for a lack of professionalism by an employee can range from probation to termination.

A third party firm can be beneficial to companies developing these policies. An outside firm can come in and mediate while creating standard content that each employee can use. It is a great way to move the company forward, if there are growth initiatives and human capital initiatives. A company can make up for lost time and progress by hiring a firm (like Epic Careering) to write profiles for the front lines (sales, customer service, and recruiting), and for the executive team.

  1. A clear and concise understanding of who manages official social media accounts: It is imperative to create a social media team, regardless of the size of a business. If the team consists of more than one member, assign roles to determine who will perform each task, including who actually posts to accounts. It is important to maintain one official voice between each social media account. Official accounts and their followers belong to the business, not the employees running the social media account.
  1. A comprehensive guide to protecting clients’ privacy and sensitive data: In many cases businesses operating online must have an online privacy policy. It is just as important to have a data security plan in place. It can start with keeping data security and privacy at the forefront of a business plan, versus it being an afterthought. For example, employees managing social media networks (and databases) should avoid common passwords, default passwords, and using the same password for a variety of accounts. Malware protection software and anti-phising software should be installed on business computers, and home computers that may be used for official business. The FTC has an extremely comprehensive guide to data security for businesses.
  1. A comprehensive guidelines for dealing with negative feedback: It starts with being positive and proactive. Ways to deal with negative feedback that may damage a brand can consist of an employee dedicated to handling complaints. Issues can be resolved privately, but it is essential to let the public know an issue has been resolved. Businesses can take it a step further by reaching out to customers after the issue has been resolved. A few small, but meaningful gestures can turn a satisfied customer into an evangelist for a brand.
  1. An understanding that social media is less about ROI, and more about brand management: The Return on Investment for social media usage can be hard to measure. That doesn’t stop companies from trying by using a mix of analytics, customer engagement and conversions. has an excellent infographic on how businesses measure the ROI on social media. That said the benefits outweigh the costs of using the medium. In particular, social media is useful for building a brand, managing relationships with customers, developing products, customer interaction (including feedback and support), and building a community. It is a great way to demonstrate a company’s expertise and differentiate from the competition. The trust and loyalty gained from effective social media usage can’t be overstated.

A failure to fully embrace and utilize social media by businesses can mean a sudden death. A competitor fully tuned into social media can come in very quickly and dominate a market in some industries. Any company that wishes to remain vibrant and relevant in today’s highly connected world needs a consistently branded presence on social media. Getting the legal department and the marketing department to play along nicely doesn’t mean a business has to sacrifice their online presence to mitigate risk. A well-developed guide that covers employee behavior, online accounts, data protection, and ways to deal with negative feedback are great ways for a company deal with issues that may arise because of a strong online presence. Effectively leveraging social media as a powerful marketing platform can increase brand awareness that makes sales easier. The effort of inspiring collaboration between legal and marketing departments may mean an investment of time, some communication training, or mediation. That effort will make all of the other outward business efforts (sales, partner development, recruiting, and even selecting vendors) easier and more successful.

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