Interview with a (very smart) lawyer about Social Media


Alfred C. Frawley – Preti Flaherty

I talk all the time about planning out your social media strategy and setting company policies BEFORE there is a problem or you find yourself lost in cyberspace. A great way to get started is to work with your lawyer on putting together company policies to not only get you started but to protect yourself and your brand.

I had the opportunity to discuss some of the questions I try to tackle with clients with Mr. Alfred C. Frawley, III a partner at Preti Flaherty (one of New England’s largest law firms). Mr. Frawley specializes in complex business litigation, technology law and intellectual property law. A Partner of the Intellectual Property and Corporate/Commercial and Business Services practice groups, he practices from the firm’s Portland office.  Read more about Mr. Frawley here.

During our interview, Mr. Frawley lends his expertise to some of social media’s most burning questions. Anyone who is using social media to promote their brand should listen to the advice given below to protect yourself, your employees and your brand. I hope you get as much out of this post as I did during the process.

Amanda: We work with a lot of small and medium sized businesses who are trying to figure out the best way for their business to participate on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn etc.  What are some things businesses should consider before joining social media sites on behalf of their company?

Frawley: I think the first rule is that if you jump into using these services to advance your business , you must convey a consistent message. You should choose a tone or voice which suits your business and which consistently reinforces the value proposition of your goods or services.

Equally as important (and this is often overlooked), a company must be committed to regular posting or updates. If your last post on Twitter was 3 months ago, the message is that you are not that interested in keeping connections with your followers/customers.

If your company has a blog, update it regularly. Otherwise, your efforts look sloppy and seem to be an afterthought. You wouldn’t run radio spots for Holiday sales in July; in the same way, your last posting on your blog shouldn’t be a preview to a new product offering “a few weeks away” if the posting was put up in June. If you are not going to create content regularly and consistently, you should probably avoid the effort.

Although it is often said that “no publicity is bad publicity”, the rule doesn’t apply to social networking sites. Digital posts are forever. At the very least, they are very difficult to wipe out, once someone picks up a comment and gives it wider circulation.

I have had clients who have had criticisms or an insult directed against them on social media sites and message boards, and it is very difficult to remove the posts (or in some cases, even to find the owners of the message boards). So, it is important that some thought and care goes into what is posted and where it is posted.

The sites you mentioned are legitimate services, but as social networking expands, there are sites or services with sketchier audiences or content. Before creating a presence on a social networking site, it probably makes sense to monitor the service for a week or more, just to get a feel for the vibe or ethos of the site.

Finally, if your postings allow for comments, make sure you can approve all comments before they are posted. Otherwise, you will lose control of your message and the site.

Amanda: As companies proceed with producing content on social media sites who is the best person to be updating these sites?

Frawley: If your company has a marketing department or a designated person responsible for external communications, that person or department is best suited to keeping the postings on message and to preserve the integrity of the branding message that you are trying to convey.

A senior executive may think that she is going to keep up with the content, but unless it’s part of their job, it will probably slip in the face of other more pressing responsibilities.

Amanda: When it comes to blogging, what policies should companies put in place before creating content?

Social Media Policies and checklistFrawley: As stated before, the Company should “speak with one voice”, and, therefore limit the number of people who are creating content for the company.

That said, it is inevitable that some employees will blog (whether from work or home) and there are some simple expectations that should be put into place to control risk. Early on (in 2004), Charlene Li, in a Forrester Report (http://www.forrester.com/Research/Document/Excerpt/0,7211,35000,00.html) set forth six guidelines, which are worth repeating here:

  1. Make it clear that the views expressed in the blog are yours alone and do not necessarily represent the views of your employer.
  2. Respect the company’s confidentiality and proprietary information.
  3. Ask your manager if you have any questions about what is appropriate to include in your blog.
  4. Be respectful to the company, employees, customers, partners, and competitors.
  5. Understand when the company asks that topics not be discussed for confidentiality or legal compliance reasons.
  6. Ensure that your blogging activity does not interfere with your work commitments.

For employees whose job it is to create content, the second, third, and fourth bullets are probably the most important. But for “unofficial” bloggers, each of the bullet points should be observed.

Amanda: Can anyone take any content from the web and add it to their blog? What about images?

Frawley: In the age of digital content, it is easy (and tempting) to simply cut and paste content from another source. You should resist the temptation. Digital content (text and pictures) is subject to copyright law, and the author of the content is entitled to exclusive use of the content.

Treat other people’s content as you would want your own treated: don’t steal it. If you want to repost an article or a picture, ask permission. In most cases, the author will be flattered and give you permission to use it. It’s ok to link to an article from your blog. You may also quote a small excerpt from an article, particularly if you are commenting on it or criticizing it. That’s called “fair use” under copyright law and is acceptable practice. However, if you think you are taking too big an excerpt, then you probably are. When in doubt, link, don’t copy.

Amanda: What other advice can you give businesses to protect themselves and their brand on social media sites and online in general?

Frawley: I think the discussion above probably covers it. You should at the very least create several Google Alerts for your company’s name, your key competitors or product or service categories that your company features. Then, you can keep aware of what’s being said about those subjects, and act to counteract it. Google Alerts mine news articles, web postings and blogs fairly deeply, so you might get some surprises or insights into your market or your competitors.

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I would like to again thank Mr. Frawley and Preti Flaherty for taking the time to chat with me. If you have any more questions on this topic please visit Preti Flaherty’s website and Mr. Frawleys’s bio page for contact information. Thank You!