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Community engagement using social media: minimise the risks

First published by Local Government Lawyer, 5 May 2016

Local government's use of social media is no longer in its trial stages. It has become a proven method to keep costs down whilst engaging with members of the public in a format they now expect.

The beauty of social media is that it can be accessed instantaneously across a number of platforms and for free. With the likes of Instagram and Snapchat, it's increasingly popular to share and post images as a way to communicate your brand messaging. But while this new media trend may be a simple and effective way to broaden your reach, it does come with risks.

What are the possible risks?

Each social media platform operates in a different way, which brings with it a raft of potential legal and other risks. Depending on the type of platform being used these risks could include:

  • Infringing third party intellectual property rights – Be wary of posting images or content for which you do not hold copyright or have permission to use. Copyright holders can and do take legal action when their material is shared without permission using social media.
  • Defamation - In very broad terms, if a post causes others to think substantially less of another user then the post has potentially defamed that user.
  • Breaching data protection legislation - If data classed as personal and/or sensitive is released without the subject's consent this may constitute a breach of data protection legislation.
  • Making misleading communications - The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 prohibit unfair commercial practices and communication that is misleading. This includes omitting to mention something that could cause a consumer to enter into a transaction they would not otherwise have entered into.
  • Breaching platform use terms – Your actions may break the terms and conditions of use of the platforms themselves.  Such terms of use normally provide for contravening user accounts and for all data to be deleted. This would mean losing all data associated with the account and all of the accounts followers.
  • Reputational damage – If social media tools are not used well this can have a widespread detrimental effect on a local authority's reputation.

The potential cost implications stemming from these risks range widely. In addition to pursuing a claim for damages, in the event of rights infringement or defamation the party claiming to have had its rights infringed or to have been defamed may seek an order to take down the offending content as quickly as possible. The legal costs of opposing such actions can be very high.  Breaches of data protection legislation and The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 may result in fines and, in the worst cases of contravention, criminal convictions.

How can you minimise the risks?

You may look to do the following to minimise the risks:

  • Have clear policies in place for how employees are allowed to use social media. The best policies explain the risks clearly without using legal jargon and, ideally, provide examples of what is acceptable and what is not.  Policies should be updated regularly. 
  • Ensure that employees, especially new joiners, are educated on the guidelines and the risks of ignoring them. Guidelines should be enshrined in employment contracts so that staff members are fully aware that they must comply.
  • Use resources shared across local government, such as those established through central government initiatives.  By sharing ideas and experience, authorities can avoid incurring costs individually.  

Good use of social media platforms results in clear messages about you and your community reaching the greatest number of community members possible. In short, it is a quick way to provide value to your stakeholders. But how can local authorities keep up with the demand for multi-platform engagement in an increasingly diverse social media environment?  Much of the success of social media depends on early adoption and an understanding of how the platforms work. But this takes time and resource.  

Fundamentally, it is not necessary to re-invent the wheel; adopting good practice demonstrated by others is key.  Local governments can watch and learn from other sectors, such as retail, that have been quick to adapt and use social media as a valuable tool.

The shifting trend of platforms towards end-to-end encryption may lead to local authorities considering communicating with constituents using free message services such as WhatsApp.  This poses questions around the ability to protect personal data and confidential communications.

But as the number of users of Instagram and other expanding platforms in the UK rises, if local authorities opt to utilise such platforms, the limitations posed by the legal risks may be outweighed by the ability to reach a greater proportion of the community. This is particularly true of younger people who no longer or may have never used email as a means of direct communication, let alone the postal service.  

Next steps

It's vital that local authorities have the right policies and measures in place to avoid costly consequences and possible reputational damage. 

When getting your internal systems in place, you should also keep an eye on how other sectors are utilising social media and be aware of new platforms. It's important that your social media policy is kept up-to-date to reflect these market trends and avoid legal risk.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at May 2016. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

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