When social media is against the law

I know that many people worry about the risks of companies engaging in social media. Often they use these risks as excuses to stay out of social media and even to prohibit anyone in their company from being involved. That kind of behavior has its own risk of being missing in action from your customers who are using social media. But companies engaging in social media do run real risks—in fact, some activities in social media are downright against the law. Do you know how to protect your company from those real risks? [Full disclosure: I serve as Chief Strategist for Converseon, a digital marketing agency that advises clients on the risks and rewards of social media.]

Handcuffed , Tokyo

Image by mskogly via Flickr

Some people are surprised to find out that social media usage is subject to the same regulations that govern many more traditional kinds of communications. In many countries, for example, financial services companies are restricted from “selling” or even talking about specific financial services products, because it might be construed as financial advice. So, if someone contacts a financial adviser on Twitter with a question, in some cases the only proper course of action is to take that conversation offline or to a private online venue, such as e-mail. Many financial services companies are scrambling to put social media guidelines in place and to train and mentor their employees and agents to ensure compliance. Various penalties can result from transgressions, depending on the country.

But maybe that didn’t surprise you. After all, it makes sense that people in regulated industries need to watch what they say. But did you know that there are some industries where it is risky even to listen to what others say?

Welcome to the pharmaceutical industry and the slippery world of adverse reaction reporting. In some countries, pharmaceutical companies are required to report to regulators any incident that they become aware of involving an adverse reaction to one of their drugs. This makes a great deal of sense when a consumer calls up a company and reports a problem, but how do you handle an anonymous person tweeting about how they fainted after taking BrandNameAtrin? Some pharmaceutical company legal departments have banned usage of listening tools by their employees, out of fear that knowledge of such incidents expose them to government penalties. Other companies have engaged in social media listening, but make sure that they reach out to anyone reporting adverse events to collect the information required to make a proper report.

OK, fine, so I have you scared about social media usage in regulated industries, but there is nothing to worry about elsewhere, right? Wrong. I had a very interesting conversation with a client in Germany who explained to me all about German laws which limit workers to an absolute maximum of 10 hours of labor a day, followed by at least an 11-hour break. What does that have to do with social media? Plenty.

Is it considered work for an employee to answer a comment on her company-sponsored blog post at 9 pm on Monday night? The employee has not had that 11-hour break if she got off work at 6 pm. Lest you think this is silly, it is still unclear in Germany whether answering an e-mail in off-hours is acceptable.

And the penalties for violations are quite stiff and not what you might expect. If an employee is found to be working too much, her boss is fined–and the company does not pay the fine, the boss does. Too many such violations and the boss can even go to jail.

I am certain there are many more local regulations to be aware of when planning your social media engagement. If you’re faint of heart, just reading this post might cause you to put off the risks of social media even longer, but that’s not the right thing to do. Social media is too important to most businesses now (and will become only more important as time goes on) to be ignored or swept under the rug. Whether you research the issues yourself or you hire a consultant like me to help you, there’s no turning back now. In every industry, in every country, social media usage is taking off, and these practical issues must be resolved for businesses to reap the benefits of social media while mitigating the risks.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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