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Be aware that off-the-cuff posts to social media sites from employees can expose a firm and its clients to a world of embarrassment and unwanted attention

This article was first published in the May 2012 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Could 140 characters ruin the reputation of the company or accountancy firm you work for, besmirch your boss’s character, or tell the world your client is having an affair with the office cleaner? You bet they could, especially if they happen to be published on Twitter, arguably the biggest social media phenomenon of the past two years.

Ever since the age of email arrived, we have all had to be sensitive to the opportunities and threats of electronic media. Hammer out a few cross words in a hurried moment, press Send and bang – if you’re really unlucky you go viral and over the next few hours your rant about your mother-in-law will tickle millions across the globe.

Microblogging site Twitter and other social media networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn take that threat to an even greater level. It’s so quick and easy to tweet or post a message that its publication to thousands, possibly millions, of readers can take place in seconds. Then there really is no going back.

As Katie King, founder of social media agency Zoodikers Consulting, puts it: ‘Inappropriate remarks to thousands of people in one tweet could damage a reputation that may have taken years to build up.’

Small wonder then that while many organisations recognise the opportunities presented by social media to connect with new clients and potential recruits, they are also unnerved by the risks. Research by law firm Olswang in 2011 found that nearly half of AIM-quoted companies had been victims of untrue allegations or rumours on the internet.

Gavin Ingham Brooke, chief executive of PR consultancy SPADA, identifies two particular areas of risk that his accountant clients are worried about. The first is reputational risk; the second is the amount of time that social media can take up. ‘The return on investment may not be obvious,’ he says. ‘There’s a worry that a lot of time and effort may be leeching staff away from more productive activities.’

Know the law

Research last year by PR firm Kelso Consulting found that the typical mid-tier accountancy firm had seen an 80% rise during the previous 12 months in the number of staff signed up to business networking site LinkedIn. Social media usage within the profession is spreading fast and brings with it legal threats and challenges.

Mark Dennis, a media specialist at law firm Taylor Wessing, says that most social media accounts are in people’s own names, so an organisation cannot demand the account is handed over when the employee leaves. A departing individual can therefore take with them potentially thousands of Twitter followers or LinkedIn connections they have built up. ‘It’s difficult from an intellectual property point of view to get those,’ he says.

Copyright issue

Dennis says there is potential copyright in a single tweet. And he emphasises that Twitter carries the same sorts of legal risk as any other publication. It is important that tweets do not breach privacy, confidentiality or data protection laws.

The usual defamation laws apply to Twitter, meaning that a tweet should not ‘lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally’ or cause that person to be shunned or avoided. Where someone has made a libellous comment on their own Twitter page, a company is unlikely to be liable for it, says Dennis, but the comment could still cause the company significant reputational harm.

Thankfully firms are not completely powerless. Andrew Granger, an employment lawyer also with Taylor Wessing, says as long as firms have a clear code of conduct in which they set out the behaviour they expect of their employees, they would be within their rights to discipline an employee who used social networking sites to make offensive comments.

Pam Loch of employment law firm Loch Associates advises companies to revise their employment contracts specifically to address the threats of social media.

Drawing up a social media policy is also crucial to mitigating risk. Mid-tier accountancy firm Grant Thornton rolled out its first social media policy in February. According to Paul Thomas, its head of digital communications and social media, the firm wanted to set some clear ground rules to help staff use networking sites responsibly.

Lose the brand

The policy complements the firm’s existing code of conduct and covers matters such as the behaviour expected of a professional, confidentiality and not posting videos and photos of clients without getting permission. With a few exceptions, it also forbids staff members from setting up Grant Thornton-branded accounts: staff accounts must be personal and they must make it clear that any political views are their own.

Fortunately, most accountants are professionals who understand the high standards of behaviour expected of them. James Taylor, a business restructuring executive at BDO, uses Twitter because it’s a ‘great conversation-starter’. He explains: ‘I avoid making direct or specific comments about any clients or potential clients that could be read in a negative way. I follow the main guideline from the firm: think before you type.’

*what to include in a social media policy

  • Be professional and polite: ‘tweet as you would be tweeted’.
  • Don’t discuss confidential or classified material or break data protection laws.
  • Respect copyright and privacy, particularly when posting images and videos.
  • Don’t use the trademarks of other organisations where it is not justifiable.
  • Don’t post inappropriate photos.
  • If you want to reference a client in a tweet, ask their permission first.
  • Avoid excessive personal use of social media.
  • Separate your personal and professional use of social media.
  • Watch your spelling.
  • Be transparent – make it clear that the views expressed are your own.
  • Make use of the privacy controls on networking sites.
  • Before accepting a new connection on LinkedIn or Facebook, consider first whether that connection is appropriate for you.
  • Don’t do anything to compromise your independence in the eyes of the public.
  • For accounts in a firm or company’s own name, consider what you are saying and why, what should and should not be discussed, and who will manage the social media policy, compliance, confidentiality and consistency.

Sally Percy, journalist

Last updated: 4 Apr 2014