Social media offers many benefits to churches and nonprofits, including the ability to more easily advance an organization’s mission by directly engaging supporters online. This has never been clearer than during the COVID-19 crisis when many churches have utilized social media to conduct worship services and communicate with their constituencies online.
However, social media posts sometimes go wrong, especially if the topic is controversial, inviting negative attention and potentially damaging the organization’s reputation. Here are some guidelines for using social media safely:
Implement a social media policy.
A well-crafted social media policy is essential for any organization that will make active use of the platform. It helps the organization avoid many of the other mistakes that come with social media use and enhances its role as a branding tool.
The specifics of a policy will depend on the organization, but likely will include a range of rules to guide employees and volunteers in their interactions with the organization’s online presence. Among many other things, a policy typically lets everyone know who has authority to post official content to the organization’s social media sites, what content is prohibited (i.e., what could potentially get an employee fired), and what content is subject to management approval. It will also cover what to do in case of accidents and emergencies.
Plan for threats.
No organization should be active on social media without a clear plan for addressing potential cyber threats. The organization’s policies can address some of these concerns. For example, passwords should be changed whenever parting ways with employees or volunteers who had access to accounts.
Hacking poses a different type of threat than disgruntled employees do. A hacker could post damaging materials, or could steal contact lists and other valuable, confidential information. Organizations need to have a plan in place if this happens. Improvising a public response or hastily looking for expert advice could wind up making the damage worse or more expensive than it needs to be.
Be careful about online donation solicitation.
Depending on how a nonprofit is organized and how it is treated for tax purposes, a solicitation for donations using social media could be unlawful. Organizations need to be especially careful about how “the ask” is worded. Promises about how donations will be used, gifts that donors will receive, and similar matters can bring legal as well as reputation problems.
Social media can also get an organization into trouble if posts violate a third party’s legal rights. Information posted in violation of a confidentiality agreement, or posted in violation of a person’s privacy rights, could get the organization into needless legal trouble.
Watch for liability issues.
Monitoring the organization’s social media accounts is critical to avoiding potential liability issues for churches and nonprofits. Some of the online activities that can spell legal trouble include:
- Posting copyrighted materials without consent can expose an organization to costly infringement claims.
- Posting images of children or any confidential information without consent may be considered an invasion of privacy.
- Pastors who state a position online that is contrary to a church’s established tenets of faith or governing documents may find themselves open to dismissal.
- Churches and nonprofits that post partisan political messages may risk losing their tax-exempt status.
The Church Law Center of California advises churches and other nonprofits on how to protect themselves from risk while furthering their mission. Call us today at (949) 892-1221 or reach out to us through our contact page.