Disclaimers for social media

Update: I wrote about two models which work better in this context here.

Chances are your company has implemented an email disclaimer of some description. It is either set out in full in your email signature or you have a link to a disclaimer on a Web page somewhere. Leaving aside how adequate those disclaimers are, most companies have them. The challenge those same companies face now is that communications with outside parties increasingly go beyond just email. You are probably communicating with your customers and suppliers on Twitter, LinkedIn and even Facebook, not to mention other platforms like blogs and instant messaging. Your email disclaimer just isn’t enough anymore.

Riveter at work at the Douglas Aircraft Corporation plant in Long Beach, Calif. (LOC)

Email disclaimers are a little like small Swiss Army knives. They are multi-purpose tools. These disclaimers typically cover intended recipients and confidentiality but they should also address potential contractual implications emails may have (you can enter into a contract by email, generally speaking); viruses and malware; negligent mis-statements and other offensive statements and comments.

One central idea behind disclaimers is to contextualise the communications and that context varies depending on the communications’ purpose. A work email is intended to achieve some business objective so personal communications are not representative of the company’s views or efforts and must be placed in an appropriate context. When it comes to personal blogs, disclaimers advise visitors that the blog’s contents don’t represent the blogger’s employer’s views. The idea there is that if the blogger posts something offensive or contrary to the employer’s views or stance, the blogger’s posts shouldn’t be attributed to the company.

The social Web necessitates that communications be similarly contextualised. A person’s tweets through a personal Twitter account should not be attributed to the user’s employer if that person is not authorised to represent the employer in that context. Similarly, a response to a query on LinkedIn about something a user is knowledgeable about may not represent an employer’s position on that topic and the user’s response should be placed in an appropriate context.

Just as with email, employees’ social platforms and services accounts should have disclaimers of a sort applied to them. I’ve been referring to these documents as social terms because they go further than disclaimers. Their purpose is to cater for many of the same issues email disclaimers are meant to cater for as well as social Web-specific issues.

Email disclaimers and social terms are important documents, even though they may be underestimated. They are often the only terms that attach to communications which could have profound implications for a business. They should be carefully considered, drafted and implemented bearing in mind the communications’ method’s peculiarities (consider Twitter profiles and their inherent space limitations) and purposes. They are an important part of a communications risk management strategy.

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