Last week I was presenting some social media disaster stories at a conference hosted by the customer care people Teleperformance. You can guess at some of the brands I talked about - when I asked the audience to suggest a few ideas of online disasters they called out about half the companies I planned to focus on.
I was paired with two partners from law firm DAC Beachcroft, Ben Daniels and Emma Bate. This was an interesting experience because at most social media events the focus is on the tools and technology and innovation - not how all of this needs to confirm to existing laws.
Of course the Swansea university student recently jailed for racial abuse of the Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba might wish he had thought about some of the legal issues that surround the publication of your personal views online - he has plenty of time in jail to rue those particular tweets anyway.
There were two particular issues that really interested me regarding the use of Twitter profiles and neither of them has been tested in an English court, according to the legal experts from DAC Beachcroft.
Retweets: Some people make a point of noting in their profile that their retweets are of stories or tweets that they find interesting, but by retweeting they are not endorsing a view or statement.
Personal capacity: Some Twitter profiles feature the statement 'views I express on this account are personal and do not reflect the view of my employer'. Yet their profile also states who their employer is, their position, and possibly even links through to the corporate website.
I have long been concerned that this was a grey area nobody has really explored so it just confirmed my fears to hear from a litigator that he knows of nobody who has managed to prove the validity of any of these profile statements in a court.
I think that common sense should prevail in most of these cases, but then common sense refers to justice, not law.
If a CEO has his position and company name featured on his Twitter profile and Monday to Friday the account features mainly corporate news and comment, then he gets drunk on a Saturday and starts tweeting sexist jokes it is almost impossible to imagine that the 'this is only my personal view' defence would stand. The company would be able to argue - without much difficulty - that this person is representing the company, even at the weekend in the pub.
And what if you retweet a story that looks interesting, without actually reading the link, only to find it links through to some racist propaganda?
Again, if your profile displays the company you work for then it could arguably tarnish their brand - you would probably get your marching orders.
And so the fundamental point here is that if any of your social network profiles display who your employer is and what you do for them, then you are effectively 'at work' 24/7 with a requirement to behave in a way that is consistent with the brand image of the company that pays your salary.
We are not chained to an employer by endlessly buzzing BlackBerries, we are chained now by our online identities needing to conform to something the enterprise will be comfortable with.
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