Social Media: Ethical, legal and practical challenges

  • In this series I aim to raise awareness of the ethical and legal challenges social media presents for companies and consider good practice in providing guidance for employers and employees, whether for business or personal use.

Part 1 –Social Media and Corporate Entities

Social media is an increasingly popular and growing phenomenon. Social media can take many different forms, including Internet forums, blogs, wikis, tweets, podcasts, pictures and video. Social media differs from traditional forms of media and social interaction because of its spontaneity, global reach and permanence. Social media has become an important platform from a corporate perspective and companies are increasingly embracing it to inform and indeed influence the general media

The growth of social media is already having a tremendous impact on business throughout the world. The popularity of social media has also presented companies with the difficulty of dealing with its use by their employees both for personal and professional use. Further legal and ethical issues have emerged with the use of social media at the same time recognising the importance of an individual’s right to privacy and the preservation of freedom of information.

Social media presents many advantages to companies and organisations; chief amongst these is the use of social media to encourage the wider public to be interested in the work of a company or organisation. This allows companies to promote their products and services to customers thereby maintaining their customer base and indeed attracting new customers. The internet is also one of the most powerful tools when it comes to building name recognition and driving consumers to a business.

CEO of LeedsNet Global, Tony  Crooks agrees – “Social Media is very useful for raising awareness. However, it can be a daunting and tedious ongoing task to keep all channels up to date. Many companies and organisations start out with good intentions but their enthusiasm soon falls by the wayside, due to the repetitive work required. That is very counter- productive, as people see that the tweets and postings have not been updated for a long time, which creates a bad impression.”

Participation in social media also presents a company an opportunity to listen to feedback from its customers. This is vital because companies are able to make adjustments and improve their products and services to meet their customers’ needs and expectations.

Social media also provides greater opportunities for professional networking and enables individuals to have a global reach, a good example being a LinkedIn profile.

With the use of social media comes the inevitable criticism that companies face from customers and the wider public. Companies tend to run into difficulties if they choose to ignore these criticisms or worse still when they attempt to justify every aspect of their business operation at all costs. Managing criticisms with honesty, transparency and facts is key to maintaining a positive image to customers and the wider public.

A fundamental consideration to companies and individuals participating in the social media should be the ever blurring of the boundaries between personal and professional use; thus it is important to recognise that ethical obligations apply to professional conduct in an online environment.

The use of social media also presents problems in that messages posted on this platform tend to be permanent and difficult to retract once posted. This may expose individuals to civil and criminal liability in cases where posted messages may be found defamatory. To outline the differences, in a civil court the claimant in the case (i.e. the person about whom the defamatory statement was made) will be awarded compensation for the damage to his or her reputation. In a criminal court, the libel must be seen to have the potential of leading to some breach of the peace via the publication of a defamatory statement.


Companies which have embraced social media have the advantage of connecting with their customers better that those who choose not to. Those that are in the latter category should seriously consider monitoring activity on social media which relates to their organisation. Equally it is important for companies to recognise that use of social media is subject to the same rules as information published through other channels. Therefore from a company’s perspective the key is to train and educate employees at all levels in social media use and management.

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