Social Media and Your Legal Team

Photo of the panel courtesy of Brandon Fitzgerald of the MCCA. Follow him on Twitter at @MCCA_Brandon.

Last week I sat on a panel discussion at the 11th Annual Minority Corporate Counsel Association Conference held in Chicago.  The panel discussion was a very interesting discussion entitled Law and Social Media: Industry Leaders Forecast the Future

My fellow panelists consisted of Tekedra  Mawakana, Senior Vice President, Global Public Policy, Deputy General Counsel, at AOL; Jessica Fredrickson, Associate General Counsel at Walmart; and Richard Weaver, Deputy Privacy Officer at Comscore.   Of the panelists, I was there to represent a view point of the marketing & communications professional who is using social media to engage their audiences and find new audiences.

The view point from many of the companies and organizations that talk and meet with every week is that the in-house legal departments often don’t get social media and the purpose.   I can say from speaking with the panelists and some of the members in attendance, I don’t think that is always the case.  The in house counsels are often conservative and are trying to mitigate risk.  This is understandable and often very much needed.  However, we sometimes have to weigh whether the reward may be worth the risk or if we are just letting our fears get in the way of business being conducted.

Here are a few things that came out this very lively discussion:

Don’t Fear Your Corporate Counsel

We asked the question in the room about how many of the corporate counsels in the room feared social media.  I was actually surprised to see so few hands come up.   The corporate counselors in the room, and on the panel, shared that they often feel left out of the conversation and are only approached on a last resort basis.  Jessica Fredrickson from Walmart said that corporate counsels very rarely feel like they are the decision makers.  In my own experience, the that is often the viewpoint from the marketing & communications side – that they feel that the legal team has all the control.

One thing that we spoke about, and I suggest, is that we need to work together to embrace each other’s roles in the organization.   The more we learn about the view point from the other side, the better off we will be.  I also suggest that marketing & communications professionals, and social media practitioners, reach out to the legal team to invite them to a conference that they are attending.  The more exposure we have to the thought process that goes into making decisions, the easier those discussions will be.

Having better working relationship with your corporate counsel and involving them early in a process or campaign can really minimize headaches and heartaches down the road.

Create a Social Media Counsel Internally

There is no way to get around the fact that the internal legal team has a very valid role in any company / organization.   However, marketing & communications teams can’t live in a social media bubble.  Social Media touches many parts of the organization – customer service, HR, Legal, Sales…etc… The formation of a social media counsel that involves participants from the different parts of the organization and at least one person in the C-Suite, can really help your social media channels.  The more understanding there is of different initiatives, the better coordinated your efforts will be.  Better yet, you will have access to other points of view, and access to people who can help in the content creation process that will fill the chosen channels.

Education = Success

One of the highly discussed topics was about having Social Media Policies vs. Guidelines.   This is definitely a hot topic in many organizations and I definitely have a personal opinion on this.   The panel seemed to come to an agreement that social media is just one of the ever evolving ways that we communicate.  Most companies and organizations have a general communications policy.  My suggestion is that companies incorporate social media into that policy.  However, having social media policies around specific social media channels can often be an exercise in futility.   The landscape changes too quickly to enact policies around every new channel that opens up.   Policy can also be difficult to change once it is enacted.  This is a reason that I am personally more in favor of guidelines that can regularly be updated.

Having a well thought Social Media Policy or Guideline is really only the first step.  Today, education about social media channels, how they are used on a personal and a professional basis is important to discuss internally.  I suggest that social media guidance / training should be a part of any new hire process today and reviewed with staff annually.   Having some simple guidelines in place helps, but also showing people where the lines between personal and professional can often get blurred.   Our U.S. military does a great job of not only educating their employees (soldiers and staff) but also extends that education to anyone by really making this information public and easily accessible (US Navy Slideshare Page, US Army Slideshare Page).   While privacy is definitely an ever evolving thing today, we have to remember that your name is your brand;  if you’re brand can be associated anywhere online with the company you work with or represent then any content you post online then your brands can be connected.

Transparency Matters

One comment that caused some pause, but later agreement is that today “No Comment” is not a choice.   While there was some grousing in the room about this, both the panelists from Walmart and AOL agreed that corporate counsel has to provide better guidance in a crisis situation.  They agreed that while they sometimes have to be dragged kicking and screaming into making a comment, it’s always that better choice – even if it is simply to say that, “we are looking into the matter but need more information before we can comment on the matter”.

Part of the transparency factor in marketing / communications, especially in social media channels, is that we set both standards of behavior and expectations.  An example of this that was pointed out is that Walmart links to their Walmart  Social Media Guidelines from their Facebook page.   PR Newswire also lists our guidelines in our “About” section on our Facebook page.

The importance of setting these expectations comes very true in a crisis situation.   This example of this happened in 2011 when Nestle USA came under attack from environmental group and had their Facebook page, and a number of their brand pages, hijacked.  Since then, Nestle has posted a ‘House Rules’ tab on their Facebook page as well as a number of their brand pages.

I hope you’ve learned a few things from this blog post that covered a 90 minute discussion on the topic.  I know that I was very enlightened by what I learned during this discussion, but many of the corporate counsels and privacy officers whom I spoke with after the panel were also very appreciative for a glimpse at how the other side thinks too.

Author Michael Pranikoff is PR Newswire’s director of emerging media.

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