Five ways charities can improve their use of social media

Five ways charities can improve their use of social media

Social media can be a powerful tool for charities, but it’s also fraught with risks, ranging from online abuse to legal issues. Here’s how you can use it to your advantage.

Like it or hate it, social media is here to stay and plays an increasingly important role in our lives. For those working in the third sector, it can be a useful tool to raise awareness of campaigns and projects and to gain supporters and potential donors. But there are also risks, including people using social media to criticize initiatives or spread misinformation, and there are legal requirements to comply with.

The following tips provide some guidance on how charities can use social media effectively:

Make social media work for you

Initially, you will need to consider who within the organization is responsible for a charity’s social media accounts. This can be internal staff, administrators or volunteers, but it’s important to have a consistent tone of voice and approach to your posts.

The Charity Commission is clear that charities have a responsibility to campaign with respect, tolerance and consideration. Special care should be taken when posting inflammatory statements or material; while this can be beneficial for drawing attention to posts, there is also the possibility that it will generate unwanted responses. “You need to make sure your social media content is in support of and consistent with your charitable goals,” says Elizabeth Jones.

Set some ground rules

It is recommended that you set out a social media policy that sets out how your staff use social media, and the Charity Commission’s September 2023 social media guidance can help you with this. Joseph Harris, partner at Farrer & Co, points out that what a social media policy looks like will differ depending on the size of the charity; Larger charities with a team of communications professionals, for example, will take a very different approach to much smaller, administrator-led charities.

Another area to consider is the use of social media by people connected to the charity in a personal capacity; something that was highlighted recently (albeit in a non-charitable context) with the furor over Gary Lineker’s posts while working for the BBC. “This is a very complicated area and the Commission recognizes that,” says Harris.

“Essentially, the question is to what extent content posted by administrators, volunteers or staff can reasonably be treated as reflecting the charity’s own views?” Often this will come down to seniority, he adds; a prominent CEO is more likely (rightly or wrongly) to have their views treated as a charity than a more junior employee.

Any HR or IT usage policies will need to be considered and, where necessary, updated to reflect a charity’s social media policy.

Understand the legalities

There are several legal issues to think about when it comes to social media posts. These include data protection; confidentiality; intellectual property rights/copyrights; defamation; whistleblower protection; and equality and human rights law. Charities could also be in breach of criminal law if the communications constitute a hate crime, are malicious, threatening, indecent or grossly offensive. Staff responsible for managing a charity’s social media accounts will need to be trained in these areas so they understand what they can and cannot do.

With the general election approaching, there are electoral law rules that must be followed. Harris says charity law remains in place in the run-up to an election, but that charities that engage in regulated activities in the 12 months leading up to an election may have to register with the Electoral Commission if they exceed specified spending thresholds (currently £10,000 GBP) for regulated campaign activity.

“Regulated activity refers to public activity that meets the purpose criterion set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000,” he says. Broadly speaking, this test says that activity is regulated if it can reasonably be seen to be intended to influence voter behavior in future elections. Because charity law prohibits promoting the interests of parties or candidates, it is unlikely that many charities will carry out activities that meet this test, but it can happen, he adds. Those charities carrying out regulated activities will be required to produce transparency statements for any printed copy or digital literature.

Decide how to handle criticism

Anyone who gets involved in social media is likely to face criticism. If necessary, quickly apologize for any posts that, in hindsight, may have been a misstep, while redirecting attention to the charity’s core position. Remember, there is a silent majority out there that is listening and can be appealed to.

If charities publish material that causes or risks serious harm, including reputational damage, charities may have to report this to the Charity Commission under the serious incident reporting regime.

A more likely scenario is how to manage content that has been posted by others that is directed at the charity, especially if this crosses the line into abuse, harassment or defamatory comments. “To some extent, the unpleasantness and toxicity of social media platforms is a reality that has to be tolerated,” says Tom Rudkin.

But for more serious issues where the content is clearly abusive or untrue, it is advisable to approach the platform itself and ask them to remove the content. A last resort would be to engage the person concerned, he adds, with the threat or reality of legal action.

In the UK, the Online Safety Act, which became law in October 2023, creates greater responsibility for both social media platforms and users.

Pay attention to your emotional balance

Finally, it is important to ensure that those who monitor social media accounts on behalf of charities are not affected by the hostility that may be directed against them.

Ensure that staff do not respond to abusive comments and impose limits on the amount of time they spend on social media as part of their roles. You can also direct them to other sources of support if needed, such as an employee assistance program or charities such as Mind.

This article was first published on Third Sector.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, June 2024