Top 7 legal issues for businesses using Twitter

Twitter can be a fantastic marketing tool, but you need to be aware of the legal implications.

1. Make sure you comply with advertising regulation

The CAP Code now applies to websites, Facebook and Twitter (and any other non-paid-for online space under your control such as other social networking sites). The CAP Code says, amongst other things, that advertising should:

  • be legal, decent, honest and truthful.
  • be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society.
  • respect the principles of fair competition generally accepted in business.
  • not mislead by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration or otherwise

The CAP Code can be found here.

The Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) is generally reactive in that it tends to deal with complaints received rather than actively reviewing marketing communications. This may influence the approach to compliance. However it is worth noting that the ASA’s sanctions are also being increased so that it can:

  • Name and shame offenders, both on the ASA’s website and on paid-for advertisements on internet search engines which highlight continued non-compliance.
  • Remove paid-for search advertisements that link directly to the non-compliant marketing communication on the advertiser’s own website or other non-paid-for space online under its control.

2. If you are paid to endorse products, make this clear in your tweets

Examples of how you can make endorsements clear in your tweets are to include the word “#spon” or “#ad” in your tweet, but you must make sure that all the circumstances of your tweet comply with the advertising regulations set out in point No. 1 above. The ASA recently investigated complaints about Rio Ferdinand and Katie Price advertising Snickers chocolate bars by sending out a series of unexpected tweets (Rio Ferdinand’s were about knitting and Katie Price’s were about the Euro zone economic crisis), followed by a tweet saying “You’re not you when you’re hungry @snickersUk #hungry #spon” with a link to a picture of the relevant celebrity eating a Snickers bar.

The complaints were that it was not clear from the tweets that the celebrities were being paid to advertise the chocolate bars, in particular the first “teaser” tweets which mentioned neither Snickers nor sponsorship. In this case the ASA did not take any further action because, although the first four tweets formed part of an “orchestrated marketing campaign”, they did not mention Snickers, and the final tweet made it clear that the celebrities were being paid for the endorsements.

In this case the ASA accepted that the sponsorship was made clear by a combination of:

  • the photos of the celebrities with the Snickers bars; and
  • the use in the final tweet of the Twitter phrase “#spon” (meaning “sponsored”).

If you are paid to endorse products, then you will have to check very carefully that your particular tweets make this clear.

3. Don’t make any defamatory statements

At least two people have faced claims for libel or slander after making comments about another person on Twitter. The first was a politician who claimed on Twitter that his rival in a by-election campaign had been removed from a polling station by the police. The rival claimed in the High Court that the statement was untrue and defamatory and the Twitter user was reportedly obliged to pay £3,000 in compensation plus both sides’ legal costs.

The second is an Indian business-man who is facing a libel claim from former New Zealand cricket captain, Chris Cairns, after he made match-fixing claims on Twitter against Cairns.  The claims (which Cairns states are “wholly untrue”) were repeated on a cricket website. These cases demonstrate the need to be very careful when writing about other people on Twitter and other social networking forums online.

4. Tweets are considered public property so don’t disclose confidential information

We’ve all heard of emails “going viral” and so can tweets. Tweets can be published in other media, including newspapers, and may be credited to you. So don’t write anything in a tweet which you would not want to read in a newspaper with your name next to it! Remember that even replies to individual tweets or re-tweets are still public statements. You must also avoid disclosing any confidential information about you, your clients or any third-party.

5. Don’t infringe anyone’s intellectual property

You should not tweet anything which might be protected by copyright or any other intellectual property right. This includes all sorts of material, including photos and articles, so check with the author or owner first and if in doubt, don’t tweet it.

6. If you have employees, put in place a social media policy

As a business owner, you and your business could be affected by tweets sent by your employees, even in their personal capacity. So you should put in place a social media policy and make sure your staff are aware of it.

A member of staff at the Department of Transport had a disclaimer in her Twitter profile stating that the tweets were personal opinions and were not representative of her employer. This disclaimer did not stop The Independent from publishing her tweets (about her job, her feelings towards work and wider political issues such as describing a course leader as “mental” and posting links to tweets attacking government “spin” and Whitehall waste) in an article about her employer. She complained to the Press Complaints Commission, but they found that because tweets are public property this was not an invasion of her privacy.

7. Keep it professional

Not really a legal issue but one that a lot of people seem to forget – you are the face of your business so you would be well advised not to moan about work, make disparaging comments about clients or tweet about personal problems etc. Inject a bit of personality but keep it professional at all times.

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* Copyright Suzanne Dibble 2013

The information contained above is based on English law only and is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to amount to advice on which reliance should be placed. Suzanne disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on such information. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the above contents.


Suzanne Dibble

Suzanne Dibble is a multi-award winning business lawyer with vast experience ranging from acting for plc’s on billion pound projects to helping micro businesses with their day to day business law requirements. Having worked with Richard Branson, Simon Woodroffe and other famous entrepreneurs and having been a board director of a £100m+ turnover company, Suzanne is particularly commercially minded and entrepreneurial in her outlook and clients appreciate her practical, business minded, jargon-free advice. Suzanne was runner up in the prestigious Solicitor of the Year Award at the Law Society Excellence Awards 2011 and was also shortlisted in the Excellence in Client Service Award. Suzanne has won many other national awards. For details about free webinars and more practical legal advice for small businesses, go to lawyers4mumpreneurs and sign up for their newsletter.

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