Speaking about social-media-related legal issues is a curious experience for me. I find that the people I speak to about these issues have some idea about them when we start our conversation, but it slowly dawns on them just how complex many of these issues can (and do) become. They also realise how much they still don't know and aren't catering for in their daily activities.
Many people seem to believe that these legal issues are really more appropriately dealt with by a specific group of people within their organisations or are simply not applicable to them, given the nature of their businesses. I can understand why they might think that. Some of these concerns are pretty specific and not everyone has the same pain points, but what they don't realise is that these issues will probably impact on them regardless. The reason for this is simply that every activity the web touches will involve some sort of legal consideration, with varying degrees of complexity.
Creative agencies should pay special attention to content licensing issues (and most of them do), but they also need to be particularly careful with personal information they collect on their clients' behalf in the course of their campaigns. Retailers are shifting some of their initiatives online and will find themselves interacting with their customers' personal information more frequently. They also need to know what their customers are saying about them online on services like Twitter and Facebook because their complaints and praise can have far-reaching effects.
Financial institutions are accustomed to managing a plethora of regulatory issues and requirements and are, at the same time, actively exploring the social web for various reasons. Their traditional communication channels are usually fairly well established but they need to take special care to ensure that their employees are not putting them at risk by posting an inappropriate tweet or making an off-colour comment on a Facebook page or in blog post.The list goes on.
The simple fact is that the social web touches virtually everyone, regardless of whether they are actively using the medium for their businesses or marketing activities or not. Even if a business is not active online, its customers are and they are talking about it or its competitors. These interactions, mentions and postings have legal implications, and not taking care of these legal issues could have dire consequences for the business concerned. Lawyers are frequently regarded as a grudge purchase and it can be unpleasant having your legal exposure described in detail, but missteps online can have very real consequences for unprepared businesses so it makes sense to understand the risks, cater for them and be prepared for what comes next.
Perhaps most important of all, take care of the legal stuff and get on with what you do best: running and building your business.
By Paul Jacobson
The University of Cape Town (Law@Work) Internet and the Law course starts on 10 September 2010. For more information contact them on 021 685 4775 or visit www.getsmarter.co.za