How to avoid social media pitfalls in your company

Improper use of social media by business owners or employees can lead to legal disputes as well as federal law violations.

A Portland, Oregon, business owner recently caught a shoplifter with the help of social media. After seeing the theft on recorded security footage, she posted a video clip on Facebook with a plea to help identify the thief, according to The Oregonian.

Social media has become a way of life for many people in Oregon and Washington over the past number of years. Dozens of articles in business magazines - such as a recent post in Forbes magazine - tout the reasons why your company should jump on the internet marketing bandwagon. Unfortunately, as businesses develop ways to engage and respond to their customers, many inadvertently stumble into legal pitfalls.

On any given day, you can read about another defamation or invasion of privacy lawsuit because of an online post.

Is your business violating federal law?

Improper use of online resources such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ or Facebook may not only cause embarrassment or backlash from your customers, it could result in litigation or penalties from governmental agencies. For example:

  • Background checks obtained through social media sites may contain information that violates discrimination laws in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
  • Posts regarding promotions or contests, which ask people to endorse a company or product in exchange for merchandise or a chance to win a prize, must follow FTC disclosure rules.
  • Company policies and procedures used to protect intellectual property may violate the National Labor Relations Act if they contain overly broad restrictions on social media use by employees. Some rules may also violate First Amendment rights to free speech.

Despite the potential risks, your business does not need to avoid all use of social media. With the advice of an experienced business and commercial lawyer, and by paying careful attention to how you and your employees utilize social media, you may be able to boost your business with the increased exposure it offers.

Tips for business owners

Just as parents warn their teenagers as they head off to college, you may need to remind your employees that "innocent" comments can damage your reputation. To help avoid unauthorized or accidental posts containing offensive, inappropriate or illegal information, follow these tips:

  • Obtain permission to post photos, music or other types of content in order to avoid copyright infringement violations.
  • Establish social media guidelines for your business, being careful to comply with employment laws, and authorize only trained employees to submit online posts on behalf of your company.
  • Contact an attorney for advice before you post questionable information, to establish employee guidelines or for help avoiding potential business risks associated with social media.

If you are a business owner in Oregon or Washington, consult a knowledgeable lawyer in your area.

Keywords: social media, business law