Here's a common scenario: A social media team develops the plan for an innovative social program. The team members race enthusiastically toward the finish line, putting all their energy into the many creative, technical, and logistical issues involved in designing a program and getting it online. Finally, just weeks or days before launch—or in some cases, even the day after launch—suddenly someone remembers, "Oh, yeah. All programs need legal approval."

The program is then dropped in the laps of the lawyers as a near fait accompli.

Enter Company Lawyers

Company lawyers may not know much about social. Moreover, they aren't given much background about why the program is important or how the company will benefit. All they can see is exposure to new and uncertain risk, and a marketing department that doesn't seem to take the risk seriously or to proactively manage the issues. A company lawyer's job to protect the company from risk, including risks that shoot-from-the-hip employees haven't considered.

All that translates to a quick no.

In the case of one Fortune 20 brand, a $10 million campaign involving network television, print, packaging, digital, and social was brought to legal just three weeks before launch.

Unfortunately, neither the team nor the creative digital agency had considered that the centerpiece of the program—photos uploaded by customers—might need to be moderated. Legal shut this one down in seconds.

Protecting your company while getting a social program launched requires, first and foremost, that you build a strong collaborative partnership with your legal team. Companies in regulated environments have learned how to partner with legal not just to avoid a "no" but to make a better program with fewer mistakes.

Some industries are governed by strict rules about interactions with customers, and moving into social media requires a very careful look at how these rules apply.

To understand just how difficult operating in a regulated environment can be, consider this: If a fan posted, "I'm addicted to your lip balm" on a pharma brand's Facebook page, the company might be required to report it as an "adverse event" to the FDA. (The FDA considers "addicted" a very bad word.)

The most effective social media marketing managers partner with legal from the start.

Those marketing managers realize that the lawyers need to be their best friends if social programs are going to survive and thrive. Often, the first answer from legal will be, "No, I don't think we can do that." But if marketing brings legal in early, explains its business goals and strategies, and then works hand in hand with colleagues to understand the issues, the relationship very quickly becomes collaborative. They're able to work through what has to be done to manage and mitigate the risk.

A Win-Win Partnership

Taking the time to educate your legal department about the goals and benefits of your social efforts creates a cooperative dynamic that allows the legal department to see that potential risk exists against a backdrop of potential gain. Lawyers are there to protect the company, the brand, and, yes, the marketing managers, too, by managing, mitigating, or eliminating legal risk. Company lawyers know that the last is almost impossible, so they'll work with you to manage and mitigate—if you'll work with them. In this context, good lawyers don't say no. They say, "OK, we have this managed. Now, it's a business decision."

They'll also tell your business superiors that you've planned accordingly and taken steps to make sure that any risk is calculated.

Educating the legal team often requires more than explaining the specific goals and strategies of your program. You also need to:

  • Take the time to teach the legal team what you know about social and the potential benefits for the business. Walk them step by step through each platform, showing them how and why customers are using these tools.
  • Be clear on the business goals and strategies.
  • Show the legal team what your competitors are up to.

Filling any knowledge gaps makes it easier for them to do their job and builds trust and a foundation for a solid partnership.

You Can Never Prepare Too Much

That is a great rule of thumb for all brands as they move into social or launch new campaigns. As the legal counsel for one big brand has said, "You've got to work to anticipate what the consumers are going to do on your platform, the different routes. You may think you've got a fairly innocuous post. It could go five different ways. You need to think about those in advance. Have answers prepared."

The social media team at one of our pharma clients spent a full six months in advance of their launch working with their legal, medical, and regulatory departments to establish process and guidelines. Working with input from the client's brand teams, care center, and LiveWorld, the social media team created a database of thousands of posts and answers to different questions that could come up as users interacted in social. They really anticipated as much as possible. That kind of preparation doesn't eliminate risk, but it creates a structure that makes spontaneous interaction between customers and brands possible.

Planning the content calendar in advance allows plenty of time for review by all important stakeholders. Our pharma clients have calendars in place at least 60 days in advance. Once the calendars are planned, they're updated as needed to keep in tune with ongoing events and to keep the overall feel of the feed spontaneous and fresh.

Our clients' legal groups have told us that having an established system and process flow for creating and posting content, tools that track and archive content and actions, and an expert or trained moderation team (vendor or in-house) greatly improves social programs and substantially mitigates risk.

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The No. 1 Mistake That Even Some Brilliant Social Media Marketers Make

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image of Peter Friedman

Peter Friedman is the founder, chairman, and CEO of LiveWorld, a trusted social media partner to some of the world's largest brands. He is the author of The CMO's Social Media Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide for Leading Marketing Teams in the Social Media World.

Twitter: @PeterFriedman

LinkedIn: Peter Friedman