Social media has the potential to help any business grow, but using the technology can create legal liabilities. FOX 9 News spoke with Michael Cohen, attorney at law, to get some clarification.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and Minneapolis-based law firm Gray Plant Mooty put together a new social media guide, authored in part by Cohen, to break it all down for business owners.
Q: The implications of social media for businesses are really wide-reaching, but there are legal boundaries that complicate things here. Is that the reason the guidebook was created?
A: Well, as you said, the purpose of this is for non-lawyers and our feeling was that we needed to cover at least 25 laws in this guide that we discussed, but we do it in a way that's very easy to understand and so it's not a daunting task for a business person who is using social media for either marketing, hiring their employees and any number of other business activities. This is a way for them to understand what the legal landscape looks like without getting too detailed and complicated.
Q: All of those parts of the chess board are in there -- from copyright infringement to trademark issues, privacy violations. What are the main risks a business takes when using social media as a tool?
A: One thing that we want to stress is that it's important for a business to first, understand exactly what their employees are doing with social media and also what they are doing and what they plan to do. The training and education is key, and once they make that investigation, then they could decide whether they should have an appropriate policy in place.
Q: So what does a business do … that's just getting into this, using social media? What do they do to avoid legal issues?
A: The main thing is to act appropriately, and the only way they're going to be able to do that is to give their employees some education so that they know what's correct and what's not correct. It really depends on the business, too. In the financial services industry or in the health care environment, they're going to have specific regulations that they need to focus on that might be different than a Target or other retail application.
Q: You have a good analogy here. You equate this business-meets-social-media-and-privacy as the Wild West. Tell everybody why.
A: Social media is all about sharing information, and people have smart phones. They go home and they do their work at home. It's very easy for them to disclose trade secrets or it's easy for them to do any number of things that the employer might be held liable for as the employer. So, it's extremely important for not just the employer but the employee to understand what's appropriate and what's not appropriate. Our feeling is sometimes they just don't understand.
Q: It can turn into serious trouble in a real hurry. Is this guide free and downloadable on the Internet?
A: You can download it from the state of Minnesota or from our law firm. The one thing we're confident about is these laws are going to continually change, so we will be constantly updating the document. We have a blog also -- The Modern Workplace -- which we continually update with social media entries. So, I think a businessperson can keep themselves educated and their employees educated so they're acting appropriately within a social media environment.