Ferrari Crash

Imagine Social Media as brand new motorway, allowing tons of traffic to travel in both directions at high speed: Exciting. Now imagine that only a small percentage of those using it had actually learnt the rules of the road. Suddenly that motorway seems a bit… Terrifying.

Any organisation that’s surviving (and thriving) today is bound to have a big presence online and on social media platforms. Many are embracing this new and exciting method of communication as an effective tool in business. But what about the legal considerations?

Cybercrime is one of the fastest growing areas of crime, according to Interpol. Businesses are rightly investing in online security to protect themselves against criminals. But it’s also important for businesses to protect themselves against criminal activity by their own employees. 

Last year alone there were 653 individuals faced criminal charges in relation to comments on Facebook and Twitter. And that doesn’t include:

  • The 12,300 alleged offences reported to police involving Facebook the previous year*
  • The number of individuals and companies who faced civil action (such as the Sally Bercow vs. Lord McAlpine twitter libel case**)
  • The number of scenarios where companies’ reputations were damaged because of comments online (HMV’s twitter fail for example***)

Until now, basic Media Law training and awareness has been the privilege of qualified journalists and lawyers. Which is not a lot of people when you consider how many of us use the internet in some way, shape or form every day as part of our work.

But, now, managers can take responsibility for A) Ensuring staff involved in online and social media development have attended law and ethics training and B) Using that knowledge of media law to develop online and social media company policy.

As part of my Online and Social Media: Law and Ethics course, we discuss various relevant case studies. One of my favourite examples of a ‘social media corporate disaster’ is Vodafone’s:

Vodafone Twitter Fail

Back in February 2010, @VodafoneUK official’s Twitter account (which is mostly used to deal with customer complaints) published this message…

vodafone tweet

… To 8, 824 followers.

It was initially thought to be the work of a hacker. Thousands contacted the company. Vodafone swiftly deleted the tweet but by then it had been shared over and over again across the internet.

Then it turned out to be one of their own employees at their customer service centre, who’d been handed the keys to the official social media account. (Needless to say that individual was suspended).

Vodafone then sent the message “we weren’t hacked. A severe breach of rules by staff in our building, dealing with that internally. We’re very sorry” over and over again, responding to individual customers.

They’re the 8,000 people (most likely clients, customers and stakeholders) who will be the first to pick up on mistakes made online. Then there’s the humiliation: It seems funny to people on the outside, who have no real connection with the company. But what if you were someone who’d invested cold hard cash and hours of time to develop their social media marketing strategy?

The internet is a big mouthed, fast-talking place. People may easily forgive mistakes made online, but they sure as hell won’t forget them. The funny ones are worse in a way, because they just get shared over and over and over again… And then just when you think it’s died down, someone like me pops up and starts using it as an example of a corporate social media fail in their Online and Social Media Law training, which means people inevitably start talking about it again (sorry Vodafone).

Vodafone didn’t even do anything wrong, per se. The damage was clearly caused by a rogue individual. But if you’re giving out the keys to the car, make sure whoever’s behind the wheel is trained to drive it. Social Media Managers are treated exactly the same as journalists when they breach civil rights or break the law. And ignorance is never an excuse.

Plus, the bigger your reputation, the more clients (and the more rivals) a company has, the more important the training is; because the world is watching.

The other cause for concern is credibility; having already delivered Media Law training to marketing managers, I know that they immediately feel reassured by the fact they’ve acquired knowledge which sets their organisation apart from others with a presence online.

We can’t all be experts because it’s so new and still changing. But as a journalist I can share my knowledge of Media Law, give you the key pointers for A) Avoiding and B) Defending yourself against legal mistakes made online. The case studies are mounting at of knots, with more legal challenges, arrests and convictions every week****. This proves this issue is only going to get bigger, not smaller. It’s also creeping into our awareness. Until recently people didn’t know how much they didn’t know about the legal and ethical implications of what they post online.

psycho social

7 things you probably didn’t know about Media Law

  • Unsubstantiated rumours that are potentially damaging to an individual or an organisation’s reputation can land you a lawsuit for defamation (also known as libel). Hence why you should only ever publish something you know to be fact.
  • However… You cannot sue someone for defamation if it is deemed ‘fair comment’ (in other words, if it is their reasonable and arguable opinion).
  • Re-tweeting, republishing or linking to libellous content can still land you a defamation lawsuit, even if you haven’t personally authored it.
  • Never use images, music or even quotes without either ensuring they are out of copyright (in the Public Domain) or with explicit (in writing) permission from the creator. Exceptions are free image websites such as Flikr Creative Commons.
  • Any work created while in employment (as part of your job) automatically belong to the employer, not the creator (unless it’s been made clear otherwise).
  • Any photograph you take, you own the rights to. Likewise it’s important to remember that if someone takes a photograph of you, the photographer owns the rights to that picture, not you.
  • In the UK, copyright lasts for 70 years after the death of the creator – including to the very end of the year they died (e.g. If the creator died in June 1900, the work would not be in the Public Domain until January 1971).
By having a social media policy in place and ensuring employees are trained, managers take responsibility for protecting their organisation from expensive lawsuits or criminal prosecutions. Not to mention reputation damage limitation.

And it is about responsibility. Like it or not, ignorance and naivety will no longer be an excuse with courses like this now available. The more people who ensure they have the training, the more questions will be asked about why some people have not.

At some point in the future we will undoubtedly have enough Social Media car crashes for everyone to realise why the rules of the road are important to learn.

But would why would you wait for that to happen?

This post was written by Holly Powell-Jones – a trained broadcast journalist who delivers our Online and Social Media Law and Ethics training for businesses. Follow Holly on Twitter.





**** To see a few of these, visit

Image References: Flickr