Not long ago, Holly Myles, the digital media strategist at Eisbrenner Public Relations, attended a work function. She was laughing at a joke when a photographer snapped a picture. A few weeks later, she got an alert from the tracking service Social Mention that there was a new photo of her on Flickr, and when she saw it, she was dismayed.
"The picture was very unflattering, and it looked like I'd had too much too drink," she says (she hadn't). "Then I did a Google Images search on my name, and it was among the top three photos." The solution was straightforward: She contacted the organization that had posted the photo to ask them to take it down, and they did.
As Myles' experience shows, it's important to stay aware of all the ways you show up in social networks, both in text and in images. You may not always like what you find, but at least you can do something about it instead of being in the dark.
Myles uses Social Mention and Google Alerts to try to capture all mentions of her name, and she recommends occasional Google Web and Google Images searches, as well as searching YouTube, to unearth any online mentions or images that may surface from the past, perhaps from a long-forgotten social media account.
So what do you do if you find something you wish wasn't there? If you posted it, you should either take it down or make it private, since all social media outlets allow you to do that. Keep in mind, though, that this won't erase the item from your Internet history and it may still appear in Google Image searches for years after the removal.
Even an ill-conceived tweet can gain a life of its own. Chrysler learned this the hard way recently, when a social media representative having a bad day tweeted as @ChryslerAutos that no one in Detroit "knows how to fucking drive."
The situation is considerably more delicate if your employees have posted in a way that reflects badly on them and, by extension, your company—either in the past or currently.
"You can often avoid this by doing a thorough social media audit of any potential employee before hiring, and by having a robust social media policy in place," advises Dallas Lawrence, managing director of Digital Strategy at Burson Marsteller. (But take care that your policy isn't too broad.)
What should you do if you find an inappropriate post or image by one of your employees? You risk resentment if you simply order someone to remove a post or image from a personal social networking account. So a softer approach is more effective, Myles says. "Be casual. Don't attack, but explain to them why they should not want something there that makes them look unprofessional. You want to make them have that 'aha' moment when they realize this is in their interest too."
Of course, you won't know to have the conversation in the first place if you don't stay informed about your employees' social media presence. This is one reason it's important to friend, follow, and otherwise connect with all of your employees through whatever social media they use. "I always invite people to connect with me," Myles says. "I want to have that dialogue."
You face a different set of problems if someone posts libelous, defamatory or disparaging information about you in a social media forum.
"The best approach is to balance technical, legal, psychology, and public relations issues," advises Michael Roberts, senior analyst at Rexxfield.com, which provides Internet digital forensics and litigation support. "If yours is a public company, you have to consider investor relations as well."
Before you call a lawyer, take a deep breath and try to determine—as objectively as possible—whether the offending post actually constitutes libel.
"The line between embarrassing and libelous is very blurry for some people," Lawrence notes. "It may be difficult, but you have to recognize when someone's posted something unpleasant about you that might or might not be true, or might be an opinion. There's a difference between that and publishing something that's patently factually incorrect." (Only the second of these is legally actionable, by the way.)
Even if you have been legally libeled, you may have few good options.
"A person who's been libeled in a social media outlet has the same basic legal rights, and the same hurdles—and then some—as someone libeled in a newspaper," notes Julian H. Wright Jr., a litigation attorney with Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson. "The Communications Decency Act of 1996 extends special protections to online service providers so they cannot be held liable for remarks contributed by third parties."
This means that if someone posts libelous information about you on Facebook, you cannot sue Facebook. You can sue the person who put the post there, assuming you can identify and locate him or her. But there's also a risk that the poster could mount a freedom-of-speech defense. That could mean losing the case and paying for the other person's legal fees. So you should only take this step with extreme caution.
A better strategy is to take your complaint to the social media outlet where the material was posted. The site isn't legally obligated to help you, but it may anyway.
"Many providers make it a term of their service agreements that libelous material will not be posted," Wright notes. "With persistence—and because of online service providers' long-term interest in not circulating false information—an injured party may have success in getting offending posts removed."
Whatever approach you choose, don't make the tempting mistake of withdrawing from the social media world after being insulted or defamed.
While it's nearly always a bad idea to engage your detractor in a public debate, it can work against you to retreat into stony silence. On the contrary, the experts advise, the best response to disparaging social media is a lot of positive or neutral posts on unrelated topics that will draw attention away from the nasty stuff.
"Pretty soon, it won't be about the one or two negative posts anymore," Lawrence says. "It'll be about the 300 or 400 you put out on the good things you're doing. With social media, you can be the captain of your own fate."