Legal Issues in Social Media and How to Avoid Them

By Krystal Rhaburn

Flickr photo by gentlehorizons

On Wednesday, August 22, I attended an event hosted by the California Gold Coast PRSA Chapter entitled “Social Media Legal Problems.” I’ve never had an interest in law and legal topics, however this event opened my eyes to things that I should be definitely considering as a future public relations professional in the ever-growing era of social media.

The presentation was given by Glenn Dickinson, a lawyer who specializes in trademark, copyright, competitive business, and Internet law areas at the business law firm LightGabler in Camarillo, CA.

Dickinson’s overarching message was that companies and organizations should practice entering social media as a conversation, and strive for two-way engagement rather than a one-way dialogue. By enhancing the level of interactivity amongst followers, a higher level of both credibility and trust is reached, which can often limit the amount of discrepancies overall. Dickinson shared that only 20% of Chief Marketing Officers use social networks to engage and collaborate with customers. It is apparent that those who do have much stronger platforms.

Of the points presented, there were 4 that stood out to me the most. If you want to avoid getting yourself in some unexpected social media trouble, continue reading to learn more about them:

  • “Defamation is a problem because of the fast stream of communication that social media brings.” Defined, defamation is the communication of a false, harmful statement that has the ability to jeopardize the reputation of another. It is important to take caution when posting statements about others online in order to avoid any elements of defamation, and to only post what you know is true and can be proved, regardless of where/what platform you are posting it on.
  • “It is okay to take photos of people in public places. However, you must be careful in how you use them.” If you use photos taken of people in public places for commercial purposes without informed consent, you violate the right of publicity protected by CA Civil Code § 3344. You can post such photos on your own social media, as many events have precautionary signs around regarding the possibility of it, however you cannot use these photos to advertise, market, etc. Infringement is very common among modern social media, most especially with picture usage and it is important to err on the side of caution with this matter. You can do so by utilizing commercial use/public domain image libraries, that have hundreds of 1000s of images for free use. Some of our favorite libraries are Unsplash, Pixabay and Pexels. Here’s a list of over 90 more, many of which do not require subsciption or sign-ups, and are also free: https://mashable.com/2017/05/23/where-to-find-royalty-free-images/#9kEHCT8jLOq8
  • “Countering negative publicity with a negative response almost always fails, even if you’re right.” Essentially, this is just fueling the flame even more and audiences will most often be turned away by such actions. It has been proven that those organizations who handle the negative publicity with grace and eloquence are those who are not harmed by it, and instead show depth to their values and communication skills. A prime example of this situation would be through the use of Yelp or Facebook reviews. These are public, and can be utilized by anyone. Thus, it is in a business’ or an organization’s best judgment to refrain from countering negative reviews with a negative, combative response. Being amicable, even with the toughest of critics, is always the way to go. This can also help to avoid any potential legal issues/lawsuits, etc.
  • “Social media is spontaneous, interactive, and time-sensitive, and you must always be ready to move/change/adjust accordingly when legal problems arise.” If an organization or business allows negative legal matters to just sit rather than taking some sort of cautionary action, they are simply leaving the space for the matters to worsen as time passes. They must be able to react in a professional matter and should have a plan already in place if possible.

Try to keep these matters in mind when utilizing social media for your business. Thanks again to Glenn Dickinson and Gold Coast Chapter of PRSA for keeping us aware of such important issues that are sometimes easily overlooked!

Krystal Rhaburn is the summer 2018 DJA intern and a California Lutheran student.

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