Professional Use of Social Media: Do You Need a Disclaimer? (Part 2)

In the first part of this series on professional use of social media in the public service, I talked about the
two different approaches you can take. In part 2, I will try to untangle the issue of the social media disclaimer.

It is a common sight to see social media accounts, particularly Twitter accounts, that include a mention along the lines of: “Opinions expressed are my own.” This is an attempt, especially in the case where individuals identify themselves as working for a Public Service Organization (PSO), to deflect any potential downfall from the individual’s use of social media. Many think it is essential to have such a disclaimer, others think it is useless. Here are a few things to consider before making a decision, either for yourself or for your organization:

1- The public needs to see your disclaimer in the first place

This is the first and perhaps most important point and one that social media novices often overlook: Most people will never even see your disclaimer.

Unless people actually click through to see your account and read your bio, all they will likely ever see is your tweet, retweet, status or post. This is even more likely if they are accessing social media via mobile device or through some kind of dashboard or Twitter client. Mind you, if you are putting a disclaimer because you are identifying yourself as a public sector employee in your bio, they may never see that either!

2- The disclaimer provides no protection, legal or otherwise, against repercussions

Now, I am no lawyer but from my discussions with lawyers at work and friends who are lawyers, putting a disclaimer on your social media account provides no real protection, legal or otherwise.

In fact, it would seem that disclaimers in general (Beware of dog, If you break it you pay it) have very little “bite” to them (pun intended) in terms of absolving you from responsibility). For example:

  • If a PSO employees posts something that they shouldn’t, then having a disclaimer won’t save them from disciplinary action or, if the content of the post warrants it, from termination.

  • In the case of the “RTs don’t imply endorsement” or “RT≠ endorsement” disclaimer, if the information you are retweeting could be shown to be inaccurate or worse, defamatory, you could be held accountable. In extreme cases, You could also face legal action for libel.

What’s worse is that the disclaimer can actually get people in more trouble than if they didn’t have one. Having a disclaimer can give individuals using it a false sense of security (i.e. they might posts something they normally would not because they think they are “covered” by the disclaimer).

3- The public might put on their “Public Sector Glasses”

The public at large tends to have a different perspective when it comes to the Public Sector. It’s almost as if they put on special glasses that make all public sector employees look alike. Federal, provincial, state, municipal, doesn’t matter – You are all lumped into the public sector employee category. That’s why most people will associate what you say and what you do with your employer on some level regardless of any indication to the contrary. Why? I can’t say for sure but I think two things come into play.

  1. The public doesn’t really understand the complex inner workings of a big PSO, or more likely

  2. Our titles tend to sound self important

So, as a member of the public, if I happen upon the Twitter account of an assembly line worker over at GM, I might not assume he or she is speaking on behalf of the organization. But when I find an account for a Senior Manager of Strategic Operations, I might be excused to think that this person’s expressed opinion represents the organization.

This association will be stronger the higher the position you occupy in the organization. So a junior admin officer might get away with it but if you are a senior manager or director, a PR practitioner, a politician, a company spokesperson, or anything along those lines, then what you do and say will undoubtedly be associated with your employer to some degree.

4- Perception can sometimes be as damaging as fact

Many if not most POSs have some kind of employee guideline on the books that state in various forms that employees must uphold the good reputation of the organization. This usually implies a standard of conduct on the part of the employee that would protect the organization’s reputation from harm, real or perceived. So basically, assume that anything you put on social media might be associated in the public’s eye with your organization.

Now, this is the exact reason that some insist for the necessity of the disclaimer – to warn the public against associating your views with the organization’s official positions in order to avoid even the perception of impropriety. And in all honesty, the disclaimer may well accomplish this, if and only if people see it first..

So, what does this all mean? Should employee have a disclaimer on their personal or professional accounts? Should PSO’s enforce a disclaimer for employees using social media in a professional capacity?

For employees, it means you should always use common sense and be careful what you post on social media, whether you have a disclaimer or not.

For PSOs, it is going to have to be an internal decision based on your particular organization. Doing some kind of risk analysis couldn’t hurt! One thing is for certain though, for any organizations that feel the need to protect themselves from reputational damage as a result of their employees use of social media, I would caution you to keep this in mind:

Disclaimers are not a substitute for proper social media policies and training.

Enforcing a disclaimer for professional use of social media is not in any way an acceptable replacement for having a proper social media policy in place, an inclusive social media strategy, and proper social media training for employees who are going to support your organization through their professional use of social media.

See also Professional Use of Social Media: Two Different Approaches (Part 1)

Alain Lemay is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Alain Lemay

Hi David, thanks for the very informative link. My opinion? This is all pretty new and you can expect a lot of back and forth until it is properly addressed in some form of legislation. As social media becomes a common tool in the public service employee arsenal, the rules of use and engagement will be better defined. Until then we are in a bit of limbo (which is why I wrote this piece in the first place.

BTW, part three of this series will deal with the two approaches PSOs can take towards employee professional use of social media and I believe this might shed some further light on the subject.