When Scott Palochik, business development manager for ESPI in Bethlehem, began blogging for the information and operations systems solution firm in January, he did his homework.
He saw that Google would give him better search results if the company’s website had more active content.
“Active content is king,” Palochik said. “The more information and the more educational content, they rank you a little higher.”
But he also knew there were pitfalls out on the worldwide Web, and he carefully researched the laws and best practices of blogging before he began to write.
He made sure his photos were royalty free and not copyrighted, that his content came from the company’s own resources and that the information was – to the best of his knowledge – true.
Most larger companies have a legal department, or seasoned professionals, such as Palochik, who know the laws of social media, but Paul McGinley, a partner with the Allentown law firm of Gross McGinley, said even large companies can find themselves on the wrong side of the law when it comes to social media, and it isn’t just on blogging.
McGinley cited a recent news story where a major shoe brand, Cole Haan, was put on notice by the Federal Trade Commission for a promotional campaign where it had people creating posts on Pintrest praising the shoes in exchange for a chance to win a free pair.
The FTC had ruled the chance to win shoes constituted as payment for the promotions without the proper disclosure that the pinner was receiving something in return – i.e. a contest entry.
McGinley said the FTC is cracking down on such violations, which have become very common on sites such as Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter.
“If you’re getting an endorsement of a product, you’ve got to let everyone know there’s been a payment,” he said.
Kim Spotts-Kimmel, a partner in Gross McGinley’s business services group, said that, overall, people and businesses treat social media too casually.
“Clients are always surprised that all of the rules still apply. There are no exceptions for social media,” she said.
That means legal issues such as copyrights, privacy, libel and FTC regulations all need to be taken into consideration in blogs and social media posts.
McGinley said many people “borrow” photos from the Internet for their blog or a social media post, assuming that because someone has shared it online, it means that it’s fair game to use.
“There seems to be a perception out there that it’s OK, but no it isn’t,” he said.
Of course, there are situations where reposting is permissible, he noted.
Most social media sites have it in their policy that anything posted on the site can be reposted by other users.
However, those policies end when someone takes a posted photo and uses it in another source, such as an advertisement for his or her business.
Spotts-Kimmel gave the example of a happy customer posting a rave review on a company’s Facebook page.
That company can promote and share the post on Facebook.
“But if you spin it into an endorsement and take that and use that on your website or in an ad without permission, you’re creating liability,” she said.
Spotts-Kimmel said this is a particular problem area with regard to celebrity images being taken and misused in social media and online ads.
If a company finds out that a celebrity likes or uses its product, it can’t simply post that celebrity’s image saying he or she is a happy customer.
“Their image is their profession, and they’re going to want to be paid,” she said.
She noted that someone could argue that a blog is a promotional tool and that wouldn’t be fair use.
McGinley also cautioned that just because someone has posted a picture on a website, it doesn’t mean that person had the legal right to use it. If you or your business takes and reuses a copyrighted photo that someone else had illegally posted, the liability extends to you.
Trademarks are the same way, he said.
“These are valuable pieces of property, and we can’t use them without permission,” McGinley said.
He said a person blogging about a product or company, for example McDonald’s, might copy and paste that company’s logo into a blog.
If the individual is writing a critique, the posting of the image is more than likely fair use, he said. But if it’s being posted for a commercial purpose – or the poster’s own gain –there could be liability.
“People have been sued for this,” he said.
Spotts-Kimmel said there is also the danger that reposting something such as endorsement could cause even more problems if it isn’t true.
“If someone makes an endorsement that isn’t true, like ‘Tylenol cured my arthritis,’ that could be a problem if [Tylenol] reposts it,” she said.
McGinley said a good deal of social media law should be common sense for anyone with a history in print publishing.
“Just because it’s a blog, doesn’t mean it gets a free pass. It’s subject to the same rules as print media,” McGinley said.
For those starting out in online media, however, background research is important before you start blogging or posting on behalf of your company.
“Educate yourself on copyright and endorsement rules. They are the biggest problems for amateurs,” he said.