Media Clinic: What can be done to prevent my company’s online activity ending up as legal action?

THE other week, the allmediascotland Media Clinic posed a question for Scotland’s media community to help answer.

One question was posed and two answers were received.

The question was: What can be done to prevent my company’s online activity ending up as legal action?

The answers offered – for information purposes only and should not be regarded as binding or legal advice – are from (1) Gary Ennis, managing director of digital marketing agency, NSDesign and (2) Dave Rattray, managing director of

(1) Prevention is better than cure and there’s a lot you can do now to minimise the risk of this happening. A company-wide social media staff training programme and a set of friendly ‘guidelines’ to outline the type of behaviour you expect – and to demonstrate the consequences of ‘doing it wrong’ – are really worthwhile.

In my experience, very few members of staff deliberatly set out to cause offence. But there’s something about Facebook and Twitter that encourages some of us to ‘say things without thinking’.

As I understand it, under the laws of libel, or defamation in Scotland, any form of publication can be actionable even if all you do is share someone else’s libellous or defamatory comment. One tweet to one follower, even one tweet to NO followers could be enough to get you into trouble because it still counts as a publication and there’s a chance someone will see it.

Allowing a defamatory comment from someone else to remain on your blog, even for a short period of time could also see you being sued. You need to monitor all comments and work to build a community where people behave themselves. If this proves difficult or at periods of particular controversy, consider setting your blog so all comments need to be pre-approved.

You need to put plans in place to avoid getting into trouble in the first place and have a system so everyone knows how to react if something does go wrong. This can, and often does, dramatically minimise the damage done.

Everyone is familiar with statements like ‘my views do not reflect those of the company’ in Twitter biographies and on Facebook pages. It’s a start but often won’t be enough to get a company off the hook. If a defamatory post is made, you should remove it as quickly as possible and distance the company from the views. But be careful, because the company may have many more ‘followers’ on social media than the individual who posted the comment. You don’t want to draw even more attention to it.

If the worst happens, a quick, genuine apology and full retraction of the comments is often looked on favourably, but if you get to that stage – and we want to help ensure you don’t – then it really is one for the company lawyers.

(2)  One of the best ways to prevent your online activity resulting in legal action is to change your attitude and approach to writing content, retweeting and commenting.

Many of the recent high-profile legal cases have, for the most part, been because individuals on social networking platforms have failed to grasp that they are actually ‘publishers’ of content. In other words, the comments you write online are published globally and can be impossible to remove from the internet, so think clearly before you post.

In this highly-connected world it is possible for a misguided comment, retweet or ill-conceived article to get you and your organisation into a great deal of trouble in a very short space of time.

However, this can be avoided if you realise that you are not writing to a closed community of pals but are publishing in perpetuity on a global basis. Develop suitable guidelines for all members of staff on how they will represent the company online.

The guidelines should be followed by a training session for all who will be writing/posting content and ongoing monitoring of online posts and comments.

Here are some areas where I have seen people run into bother.

(a) Don’t write articles, posts or comments critising a rival firm/organisation or the competence of an individual. It is all too easy for this type of content to become actionable and if you are writing about a third party, you must always give them an opportunity to reply before posting online.

(b) Take care when retweeting or sharing content: even though you didn’t write it you may get into trouble if the original post was defamatory, incorrect or was a breach of copyright.

(c) Photographers make their living by selling pictures and you must have their permission before using their images to accompany your posts. Don’t steal pics. Sites such as have a great number of royalty-free pics that you can purchase for use online.

(d) Also ensure that you have sought permission or purchased the rights to any music you use to accompany any online content.

In most cases, thinking clearly about the purpose for publishing and how third parties may be affected will help avoid any legal troubles.

When in doubt…leave it out.

Our next question for the Media Clinic will be announced shortly. If you would like to this add to this advice, do email here.