Instagram launched in October 2010. Within two months, it boasted 1 million registered users.

Is it any wonder that brands followed?

Social media has changed the way society communicates, altering the rules of how people interact with each other and with brands.

Businesses use social media channels as a way to build awareness and engage with customers where they are — and one of those places is Instagram.

The photo sharing app recently released a suite of business tools to meet this demand. Half of all Instagram users now follow a brand and 60 percent of users learn about products and services via the mobile app. 

However, adopting Instagram, or any social media channel — especially those with a visual component — as a form of business communications come with serious risks. In fact, 76 percent of businesses regard communications on social media as formal business records, but 46 percent don’t realize they carry legal responsibility for this same social media content. 

How can organizations stay compliant in an era where the line between personal and business social media usage is blurred?

Know the Rules of the Regulatory Game

Companies using social media must remain compliant with data preservation and advertising regulations, especially in regulated industries such as financial services where the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) dictates how information must be preserved on electronic media. Failure to follow these regulations can lead to injunctions, fines and costly lawsuits. 

While most businesses are accustomed to the rules that govern mediums like advertisements and email, many lose sight of these guidelines when applied to new channels. 

Instagram posts and exchanged comments can be interpreted as advertisements and business exchanges, so existing rules still apply. Instagram provides an even greater risk because of the visual component. To protect themselves from copyright infringement, posting trade secrets or violating securities laws, firms need to take special care to ensure they are lawfully using images. 

Knowing the rules and regulations to watch for is the first step to staying compliant and avoiding any foul play.

Keep Track of What You’ve Done

Companies using Instagram as a communications channel must be prepared to collect, file and protect all content. Instagram posts and comments are ephemeral in nature, with the ability to delete content or engagement at any moment. 

Companies need to provide social media discovery if faced with lawsuits or investigations. Those that fail to build a proper retention strategy put themselves at legal risk and create internal e-discovery challenges that drain resources. 

Regulatory purposes aside, social media discovery also gives businesses the opportunity to learn from social communications data. 

Retaining and reviewing employees’ activities on Instagram is a fundamental building block for employee supervision and regulatory compliance strategies. Unlike text-based platforms where compliance transgressions can be identified with the use of automated “keyword” or “lexicons” searches, Instagram requires manual review of images to ensure they are appropriate. 

Just as a financial services firm wouldn’t “guarantee” stock performance, firms should avoid images (such as bags of money) that might convey the wrong message. Even more difficult are cases when an image may be offensive to some, but not to others.

In short, as a visual medium, Instagram requires additional bandwidth and some sophistication to review.

Have a Game Plan Ready to Mitigate Reputational Risk

A poorly planned social media post can quickly result in customer complaints and attention for the wrong reason. 

For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long made clear that social media content related to medical products can violate the law. Recently, they issued a quick warning letter when Kim Kardashian praised a morning-sickness drug on Instagram. 

The first step to mitigate reputational risk is to develop management procedures and controls around what employees can post and create policies and processes that help guide social content development.  

Effective corporate polices clearly define both what employees are and are not allowed to do. Additionally, since each channel and social network comes with its own unique challenges, consider having distinct policies for each platform. Use examples and screen shots to help employees understand, and ensure the policies are easily accessible. As a best practice, firms are increasingly posting clearly articulated public social media policies on their websites. 

Risk has always been a factor when organizations communicate with the public. In the last five years, forward-thinking companies have connected with audiences via social channels, dramatically changing the business communications landscape. 

Building strong compliance strategies in from the start will help companies adhere to the growing number of rules and regulations. 

Title image by Toronto Eaters