Protect your association’s valuable assets with good social media policies

Connectivity in associations is greater than ever with the utilization of social media such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter and dedicated association online forums. The ease with which these groups can be created and maintained opens new communication opportunities. The association that successfully harnesses the networking power of social media will successfully advance its mission.

However, each communication opportunity poses its challenges. Technological advancement runs ahead of the law, but, in some ways, the legal issues surrounding social media communications are not really all that new.

This article addresses the types of concerns you should have with your social media forums and how to address them. This includes specific items you should cover in your association’s social media policy.

How to maintain control over social media forums hosted on other websites

A key issue presented by the use of social media by associations is the need to maintain control of the forums even though they are hosted on third-party websites. The policy should make it clear that participation in the social media forum is conditioned on adherence to your rules. In the case of dedicated forums created and hosted by the association, access can be terminated by the association if the rules are violated. If the social media site is hosted by a third party, this is more difficult. But the member can still be disciplined for violating the association’s rules. Disciplinary measures, even termination of association membership, may become necessary. (Membership termination procedures must be in compliance with your bylaws and applicable law.)

Your association’s policy should apply to all of the association’s social media forums. The policy should be distributed to each member (and other users). It should be prominently posted on the social media forum. Clicking to accept should be required where possible. If a member follows the association’s Twitter account or similar social media, this is not always feasible. Even so, the association’s rules of conduct apply to members.

You should reserve the right to modify your policy in the future. And because the social media forum is not hosted on the association’s own website, the policy should make it clear that the hosting site’s terms of use apply as well.

As a practical matter, you cannot screen every post for violations, and you are not required to do so. You should, however, take action as soon as you become aware of violations. Your policy should reserve the right to remove or edit posts, but does not impose a duty to do so. Provide a contact address where others can report violations of the rules to you, and act swiftly to address these violations.


Intellectual Property

As copyright law continues to adapt to cover online issues, make sure your sites respect copyrighted materials. The policy should make clear that each post must be the original creation of the author or that the author has a license or a good faith belief that they are allowed to post the content under copyright law. The posting member must also understand they are irrevocably licensing their content that they post to the association, as well as to its members.

A similar approach goes for uses of corporate names, logos, and other trademarks. Forum posters should only use marks they have permission to use, or use marks in a way which will not confuse others about affiliation or origin of content.

The member who posts content must be aware that he or she is liable for the content that is posted — not only for copyright and trademark violations, but for any other liability that arises from the post. It is easy to copy and paste, or fire off a hasty response. An effective policy causes members to think before they post.

Antitrust law in the social media forum

Incorporate your association’s antitrust policy into the social media policy. At the least, the member needs to be aware that the social media forum is like another meeting where competitors are present, and that the same rules apply.


Your social media policy should guide users to avoid defamation liability. A code of conduct is the best approach in your policy. Your code of conduct should address off-topic discussion; inappropriate messages containing profanity, racism/discrimination, or sexually explicit content; improper use of the forum for advertising; attacking or threatening others; revelation of corporate confidences, trade secrets, or private information about any person; impersonation of others; and “hacking” or intentional distribution of viruses. Online communications allow individuals to say things they might otherwise not. Anticipate problems and have rules to cover them. In the end, your association is looking for an open and free forum for communication, but one that is respectful, on-topic, and beneficial to the members and to your industry.

Lastly, enforce the rules. Without enforcement, rules are meaningless. Protect those who use forums responsibly. Posting warnings or reminders from time-to-time is a good idea. Directing the conversation towards meaningful discourse will help turn a chaotic medium into an organized and powerful tool.

Rob Sumner, Sumner & Associates, P.C. is legal counsel to national and international trade and professional associations and charitable organizations. www.sumnerfirm.com.

 © Sumner & Associates, P.C. 2013

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