Twitter and other social media are increasingly popular in business, but sports celebrities have shown just why business users need to be careful and think before they tweet.
Most recently, Rio Ferdinand referred to Ashley Cole as a 'choc-ice' in a tweet. The comment immediately attracted attention, with some interpreting the use of the term as racially insulting.
In June, Dai Greene, Team GB's athletics captain at London 2012, caused controversy when he used the term 'gayest' in a Twitter exchange with Martyn Rooney, a fellow athlete. Greene was quick to delete the tweet, but comments were already in the public domain.
Greene escaped a disciplinary sanction, but it has nevertheless forced Team GB to remind all of its athletes that Twitter, and other social networking media must be used responsibly.
Both of these cases highlight the need for organisations to have in place policies and procedures for preventing inappropriate use of social networks.
Law firm Thomas Eggar has released some guidelines for athletes that could apply equally to all users of social media. Businesses would do well to include such guidelines in their social media policies for employees.
1. Defamatory comments posted to Twitter are treated in the same manner as those made in any other published medium. They can, and have, been used as the basis of court action in libel and defamation claims.
Lalit Modi learned this lesson the painful way when he posted a tweet accusing former New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns of match fixing. Modi had to pay over £1,090,000 in damages and legal fees to Cairns following his allegation on Twitter.
2. The way in which a tweet or comment is interpreted may not be as expected or intended. To avoid the possibility of negative interpretations, Twitter needs to be used responsibly, with tweets being read objectively prior to posting. This can be difficult, particular when emotions are running high, but due consideration must be given to the context and timing of comments.
Response to Rio Ferdinand's tweet about Ashley Cole illustrates the point. Although the Manchester United player claims not to have used the term in a racist sense, it has been construed by some to have racial connotations. It has also resulted in a complaint to the Metropolitan Police and the possibility of an FA investigation and subsequent disciplinary action by the governing body.
3. Governing bodies will take action where Twitter is deemed to have been used inappropriately.
Ryan Babel found this out following his criticism of match referee Howard Webb, when the FA fined him £10,000 in January 2011. This was the first high profile disrepute charge being brought against an athlete for in appropriate comments and it set a precedent.
From the above examples, it is clear that the consequences of ill-considered social media posts are real and can be extensive.
Perhaps one of the most important thing to note is that once something is posted, it is out there and can come back to bite the individual who posted it or their organisation, even it if is deleted.