This month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column: Social media isn’t without its risks

I wrote the following column as a preview of my upcoming presentation with Jason Clagg and Adam Bartrom of Barnes & Thornburg. We’ll present “Social Media: Protecting Your Brand, Managing Risk” at the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce tomorrow from 8 – 10 a.m. To register, or for more information, email me at

Social media isn’t without its risks

At one time or another, most of us have been stopped in our tracks by a car that we just love. For me, it was a blue Audi A4 convertible. I saw it and immediately began thinking of how fun it would be to drive, how great it would be to feel the wind in my hair as I zipped around with the top down and how envious everyone would be as I cruised past them.

There was one thing I definitely wasn’t thinking about, though: getting my imaginary car insured.

This isn’t unusual. When something gets our attention, we tend to focus on all the benefits without considering how we need to mitigate our risks. When it comes to social media, for example, everyone wants to focus on the possibilities: better customer engagement, more sales, great insights from the audience. It’s much less tempting to think about what might go wrong and plan to mitigate those risks.

The truth is, social media is a double-edged sword. When managed well, it presents tremendous opportunities, but it also comes with some fairly serious challenges and pitfalls. To better understand what businesses need to do to protect themselves, I talked with Jason Clagg and Adam Bartrom, attorneys at Barnes & Thornburg LLP. Their insights demonstrate that while risk management may not be the most exciting aspect of developing a social media strategy, it’s crucial if you hope to make the most of your time and effort.

Anthony Juliano: What’s the most critical step organizations can take to mitigate their risks when it comes to social media?

Barnes & Thornburg: You cannot ignore the risk. Few risks or problems are solved, managed or mitigated by ignoring them. With that said, the most critical step is to begin to confront/address/embrace the issue. A clear understanding of the risks and solutions is essential.

AJ: If you were putting together a checklist of items organizations should consider putting in place when it comes to social media use, what would be the priorities?

BT: These are a few of the things we’d recommend:

• Create a policy detailing what you expect from your employees (e.g.: what is permitted, when is it permitted, etc.); • Distribute and explain the policy to your employees and give them an opportunity to ask questions;

• Enforce the policy in a uniform and fair way;

• Consider limiting access to certain social media outlets during working time via a software solution; and

• Stay abreast of the evolving legal landscape in this area.

AJ: What’s one of the most common misconceptions about the risks companies face with regard to social media?

BT: One of the most common misconceptions is that social media is an entirely new frontier. While it is true that social media presents some unique challenges (as well as many unique opportunities), some of the challenges it presents are not specific to social media. For instance, a trade secret can be lost or harassment can occur via social media or entirely traditional means.

AJ: It seems like the legal environment surrounding social media is constantly changing. What can organizations due to protect themselves amid such uncertainty?

BT: This is an extremely challenging issue as the law applicable to social media, especially the degree of control an employer may exert over its employees, is evolving and being challenged on an almost weekly basis. While we try to avoid answering questions with, “Call your lawyer,” this may be one instance where you want to keep in touch.

AJ: Are the risks greater or lesser considerable for small businesses? Why?

BT: The risks are likely greater for small businesses as even one instance of bad publicity or one significant legal claim could jeopardize the future of the business itself.

AJ: Given everything we’ve discussed, do you still recommend that organizations develop strategies for using social media? Why or why not?

BT: Absolutely. From a business perspective, social media is the next frontier and allows businesses to utilize new avenues of marketing, advertising and customer strategies. It should not be feared. That said, social media can be a trap for the unwary if employers have not taken affirmative steps to manage the risk associated with it.

AJ: What’s the one most important thing you want business decision makers to know about mitigating their risks with regard to social media?

BT: Lawsuits can be expensive and time-consuming. However, a well-drafted social media policy that is understood by management and consistently/fairly enforced can mitigate (although not eliminate) the possibility of being drawn into litigation as a result of a business’s use of social media.

One last note: In most organizations, social media tends to be “owned” by the marketing/communication department — and rightfully so. Since most social media strategies are targeted toward an external audience, it makes sense that they be integrated with the organization’s larger marketing/communication strategy.

However, there’s one aspect of social media that marketing/communication should not own: your company’s employee use policy. Considering how your employees should be permitted to use social media tools is dependent upon knowledge of human resources issues and the evolving legal issues surrounding social media use. With that in mind, your company’s employee use policy should be the domain of your HR and legal/compliance teams — professionals like Jason and Adam — not your marketing department or your agency.

If you’d like to learn more about these issues, Asher Agency and Barnes Thornburg will be partnering with the Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce to present “Social Media: Protecting Your Brand, Managing Risk” at the chamber from 8-10 a.m. July 6. To learn more, e-mail me at

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