Is Legal the Enemy of Social?

There are many enemies in nature including predators and prey and those competing for territory or mates. Mother Nature designed things in this way to preserve a certain productive balance. It’s not always pretty but unless that balance is disrupted artificially, it tends to work over a long-term horizon. There exists a similar phenomenon in business where departments or job functions exist in a productive state of tension with each other. They keep each other in check and potentially, hopefully push each other to improve results against common business goals. Each has a function and focus that drives their actions and agendas.

For legal, that function is often risk reduction or avoidance. For marketing (assuming that is where the social media responsibility sits), the function has historically focused on audience outreach and message crafting. Social media has upset the delicate balance between legal and marketing because the marketing function has expanded well beyond message crafting to real-time audience engagement, and the marketing time horizon has shifted from anything resembling the long term to one of immediacy. The old-school marketing-legal relationship worked because the teams had time to negotiate and ponder wording and strategy as messages were tested and carefully crafted before they went through a legal review process and finally out the funnel to the intended consumer (or business) audience. Neither department has that luxury of time now and there is a new negotiation taking place between marketing and legal departments. The results are not satisfying to either side and both businesses and consumers lose in the process as social interactions are put in a box they don’t belong.

How do you reconcile legitimate and necessary legal input with an active social program?

Worst-case situations abound where either legal departments cling to a dated approach to marketing approvals that no longer fit the current marketplace or marketing departments go rogue without regard to the business realities that define the larger entity and must exist for them as well. Neither extreme works.

There are some tactical approaches that can reduce the strain between departments and help to preserve the immediacy of social interactions. Assuming you are not in a regulated industry, there are probably a manageable handful of potential legal landmines that your legal partners will want you to avoid in social media. If you can agree in advance on those topics and acceptable language use then you have a blueprint that can allow you some spontaneity in response while still managing risk. Topical experts should be on tap for any technical or detailed questions. A social media content calendar tied to brand objectives and seasonal events and a response matrix (kind of an internal FAQ) will help spell out a common, agreed approach and help relieve anxiety in most situations. This is especially helpful if you are using an agency partner or if you have distributed responsibility for the social media function among numerous parties. You will certainly have some unexpected or unintended results in the wilds of social media even with the best of intentions and a common understanding between departments. Have a process laid out in advance that defines how to quickly respond, an identified resource in the legal department who “gets” social media, and keep the lines of communication wide open as you will be learning as you go. We all are.

Both departments should be working together to avoid turning social media into just another channel to broadcast pre-approved marketing messaging. A social media-optimized internal process requires legal buy-in to an evolution in their approach and process and a commitment to an education on the actual (not perceived) risks in the real-time, two-way communications with consumers that are the new norm. Marketing, for their part, has to concede that there are indeed limits beyond which they cannot push and be willing to engage in an ongoing dialogue with legal on insights and developments within the social programs.

If legal and marketing stay stubbornly opposed in social media and don’t work together then the brand opportunities could be limited to either a stale rehash of marketing messaging without any authenticity or audience engagement or spin off in a free-for-all that could conceivably put the organization at risk. Hopefully good sense and good stewardship will keep most organizations from either extreme but it is the collaborative, forward-thinking groups that will work together to get the most beneficial results. This is one good example where compromise does not lead to a lowest common denominator result but rather the highest.

How have you changed your relationship with the legal department to account for social media?

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