Strategic Electronic Information Policies Can Minimize Legal Exposure

By Mar 5, 2009
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Since the advent of capitalism, dissemination of information has been the lifeblood of business. Over time, companies’ communication strategies have evolved from newspaper ads and product placements on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” to “webinars” and e-mail “blasts.” Corporate policies and governmental oversight, including judicial decisions, have tried to keep up. But the methods of communication have grown exponentially, and companies (and the government) are struggling to keep pace. As a result, it is difficult to weigh the uncertain legal and business risks against the advantages associated with electronic information.

Assess Company Culture

Generally, there are three types of companies in the Electronic Information Age:Reluctant users, cautious enablers and pioneers.

These businesses, in turn, employ workers who vary from technologically inept to cutting edge. The challenge is to chart the technological course of the company, where novices are trained and pioneering experts are guided to fit within the company’s culture. If there is no information technology plan, as the newest technological marvels are unveiled, employees from the CEO to the sales staff might make individual decisions about communications that have unintended legal and business consequences.

The Risks of Blogging

Blogs demonstrate the potential for unintended consequences. Blogging allows spontaneity and intimacy, according to The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. These traits might be great for politics and individual satisfaction, but this is exactly why companies need to be concerned about blogging. The stereotype is an anonymous worker who is disgruntled or wants to share humorous or stressful work events with others. The reality is that more companies are hosting public blogs written by managers and are sponsoring internal blogs for employees. The “classic” blog scenario still needs to be addressed to minimize risk, but the company should identify its strategy regarding company-sponsored blogs and similar innovations.

Opportunities Breed Challenges

As demonstrated by blogging, companies are bombarded with information challenges—and opportunities—every day. It used to be that the employers’ most difficult choice was whether to allow personal use of the company’s electronic resources. (Most companies have accepted that such use will occur.) Now, with the blending of “personal” and “work-related” communication tools, such as social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn), a company is faced with the tougher decision about whether the business should embrace these tools.

value and Risks

There certainly is value in the exchange of ideas and information.Many companies (and not just technology businesses) have an external Internet presence. This could include maintaining a one-way, informational web site, accepting electronic customer orders and employment applications, hosting interactive message boards and chat rooms, and sponsoring a blog. Internal message boards, instant messaging (not just e-mails being used as instant messages), Twitter and micro-blogs also are being recognized by companies as valuable resources.

The dilemma is how much control the business should have, or actually can have, over the individuals who develop content for, or otherwise use, these resources. Regardless of the method, once released into the public domain, a blog post, instant message or “tweet” can be republished easily by others, even if the original author removes or attempts to retract it.

Get a Strategic Plan

Most employers that utilize e-mail and the Internet have general electronic resource policies. As technology evolves rapidly, however, a company needs a proactive, strategic plan to ensure that its goals will be met and to minimize unexpected legal exposure. The pioneering executive, human resource professional or other employee must, at minimum, have an understanding of the company’s goals and the risks that go with public dissemination of information. These public risks have always existed, but the multiple methods of communication and loss of control increase the possibility of inadvertent disclosure, defamation or conflicting messages.

Without a strategy, the company might lose its way when chasing the next technology innovation.

Rex Stephens is an attorney and partner in Baker Hostetler’s Employment and Labor Law Group. He counsels companies about managing external and internal electronic communications and drafting policies and procedures for electronic/network resources. He can be reached at rstephens@bakerlaw.com and www.bakerlaw.com.

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