If you still have any doubts about the impact of social media in the communications industry – in fact, in every part of our daily lives – I invite you to just look at two most recent local examples: MacIntosh Polela and Lance Witten. It is also abundantly clear that rules of engagement are needed.
Both gentlemen made comments on Twitter that were considered to be insensitive by people who read them. Polela has subsequently been suspended by the Hawks for his comments about ‘Jub Jub’ needing Vaseline when he goes to prison, and Witten is on suspension from eNCA for his tweet that “people were dying to see Linkin Park”.
A breakfast briefing on Thursday in Cape Town, hosted by the social media team from law firm Bowman Gilfillan, looked at social media and the law. What does the law say about interactions in the social media sphere, was the question me and many delegates had as we walked into the room.
As we walked out, it was also clear that there was a long road ahead still, with hours of discussions still waiting on this topic.
Several examples of international case law were given as examples of how the legal fraternity around the world is still grappling with this question. For example: if I retweet a statement that is defamatory or legally problematic, should I also be held liable? Also, if I built up a network of social media contacts (such as Twitter followers) for my company and I resign, who owns those contacts?
The question is not just one of law, however. It seems that common sense is sorely needed in this sphere. There is already the example of someone being arrested for tweeting that he would “blow up an airport” if they didn’t sort themselves out. The defendant explained he was kidding; in fact even the airport staff said they saw it as a joke. The courts however did not agree.
What does the situation look like in South Africa, I hear you ask?
Here, too, it is an area of law that is badly underdeveloped. The CCMA has already expressed itself on incidents where staff members made disparaging comments on social media fora about their employers. I will not pretend to be a legal expert, but to me it seems the courts are still waiting for clarity on how it will deal with the issue of questionable social media behavior.
Is there advice for employers? How do I, as company owner, deal with my staff members going rogue?
Step one, make sure you have a social media policy in place. Your staff members must know what they are allowed to do, and what is out of line. Then, make sure there are appropriate monitoring systems in place, of course while not infringing on the dignity and privacy of individuals.
If someone does step over the line, you (as employer) must act and be SEEN to be acting. Everyone in the organisation need to know the rules of engagement – from employees all the way to Board members. And have a plan ready for when things go wrong – don’t be caught short at such a critical time.
South Africa has some of the best legal brains in the world, and I would strongly suggest anyone with questions contact a legal expert if in any doubt.
In conclusion, I come back to “common sense”. If you have any doubt about a post you want to make, don’t make it! Are you willing to say those words to the affected person’s face – if not, it is probably a sign that you shouldn’t be making that statement.
In social media, I believe it is always important to remember: “The great thing about social media is, it gives everyone a voice. The bad thing about social media is, it gives everyone a voice.”
Slabbert is account manager at HWB Communications (Pty) Ltd in Cape Town, and has been working in the communications and media industry since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @martinslabbert