Social Media Controversies: How Associations Can Steer Clear

Two recent news stories highlighting the risks of social media raise red flags for associations. How can organizations with their own social networks stay out of the headlines?

Remember when the best way to get a company’s attention about a faulty product or service was to write an angry letter or call the customer service department and complain a little? Well, in the internet age, a disgruntled customer can just as easily climb on top of a social media soap box and unload on someone, 140 characters at a time.

You need a policy as to what is appropriate social media contact and what the employee can do in the name of the association or as a representative of the association.

News headlines this month offered reminders of the risks that come with social media engagement. In Virginia, a woman who posted scathing complaints about a home contractor on the review site Yelp got hit with a defamation lawsuit. And in Louisiana, a TV meteorologist lost her job after replying to a viewer’s racially charged criticism of her hairstyle on the station’s Facebook page.

How can organizations reap the benefits of a socially connected community and at the same time protect themselves from liability? Associations Now spoke with Jonathan T. Howe, founding partner and president at Howe & Hutton, Ltd., to get some answers.

What can associations learn from the story of the Virginia woman who was sued for defamation after complaining about a contractor on Yelp?

What we have here is sort of what we call a “strike-back suit” by the so-called maligned person who got hit up on one of these [review sites]. The key element you have to pay attention to here is that Yelp is not the one that was sued. So, from the association standpoint, part of the defense is to make sure that they have a disclaimer that they are not responsible for items that are posted, and that they are not a content provider relative to any kind of comment that may be made about any person, product, or service.

What if an association has no disclaimer on their website? What risks are there?

Then it makes it a little more difficult, but they want to avoid the appearance that they were the ones who posted the information. And the difficulty here is, if they’re put on notice that something is defamatory, they have an affirmative obligation at that point to either remove it or verify what’s being posted as being truthful.

In the case of the Louisiana meteorologist, the TV station that fired her said it did so based on a specific policy it had in place regarding employee social media use. What’s the importance of having that kind of policy?

You can’t necessarily say to the employee, ‘Thou shalt not participate in social media,” but there are numerous cases of this cropping up.

You need a policy as to what is appropriate social media contact and what the employee can do in the name of the association or as a representative of the association. What [employees] do individually, you don’t have much control over that, but you certainly can provide them with some guidance as to what would be appropriate behavior.

Do you think social media lawsuits are going to continue to reach the courts?

More than that, we’re going to see what’s the internal impact when employees find out that their employers are not happy with what they did, just like the situation in Louisiana. In fairness to the employee, [an association] better have a policy in place and say this is something that is not acceptable behavior.

Who can speak for the association becomes important as well. You go back to the disclaimer, you go back to the internal policies. And then also you have members contributing to the website or listservers, so again the disclaimer should definitely be there.


Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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