Protecting your charity’s reputation online – managing social media risks

Carla Whalen, Partner in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, charity law and not for profit team,
Carla Whalen
4 min Read

We have been helping charities manage online risks for years and we wrote recently about how charities can minimise risks relating to their own social media.

Of course, reputational risks can also arise when people post content on personal social media accounts and it's now standard practice for many charities to include policies in their staff handbook which govern how employees and volunteers can use the internet, social media and email for work purposes.

With so much of our day-to-day lives shifting online during the pandemic, however, we've noticed that charities are increasingly being called upon to make judgments about when (and how) to control social media use by a wider group of people connected to the charity, including members, patrons and supporters.

What's happening?

The specifics of each situation differ, depending in part on the type of charity and the nature of the charity's activities, as well as the social media content in question. While no two cases are identical, some of the factors that have led to a recent upsurge in issues linked to social media use include:

  • increased online dependency during the pandemic as people of all ages turned to social media as a substitute for face-to-face interactions; and
  • widespread discussion online of issues relating to sensitive or emotive topics including equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and Covid-19.

Concerns might come to a charity's attention through a variety of channels – a member of the public might use a feedback form on the charity's website to complain about a YouTube video made by someone who says they’re a member of the charity; a news outlet might publish a story about an offensive Tweet by a high-profile figure who publicly supports the charity; or, a trustee might alert the chair to concerning posts they've seen on a fellow trustee's Facebook account.

What should charities do?

There's no one-size-fits-all solution, but before deciding to take action in response to content posed on someone's personal social media account, charities always need ask:

  • What's the problem? Perhaps a post on TikTok or Instagram calls into question a person's ability to perform a particular role for your charity (e.g. a patron or ambassador posts views that run contrary to your charity's objects). Or perhaps a post risks causing reputational damage to your charity (e.g. someone whose LinkedIn profile says they're a member of your charity posts offensive remarks about issues that are unrelated to your charity's work).
  • What's the potential risk? Both content and context need to be considered. Compare the risk to an anti-racism charity if a well-known celebrity who features in fundraising campaigns makes discriminatory comments on Twitter to over 3 million followers, against the risk to a heritage building charity if a private donor comments under a Facebook post suggesting Covid-19 is a hoax and then deletes the comment after a few hours and only 8 views.
  • What action do you propose to take? Your answers to the first two questions need to be factored in when deciding what action (if any) your charity plans to take. Proportionality is key and charities need to be careful not to infringe on people’s rights to a private life and/or to their own personal views unless such action can be justified in all the circumstances.

Having in place a code of conduct or social media acceptable use policy for members and other people with connections to the charity can help set boundaries at the outset and might justify action taken if those boundaries are subsequently breached. A clear complaints policy, with a procedure for investigating and responding to conduct issues, can also help to ensure that matters are dealt with consistently and fairly if and when they arise.

While preparation can help to manage issues when they arise, these cases can be complex and it's important to plan carefully before taking action. Backtracking on a decision at a later date could end up causing more damage to the charity's reputation, as demonstrated by recent coverage of a decision taken by the Royal Academy of Arts to remove items from its shop based on comments the artist had made on social media.

How we help

We support charities to respond to concerns about online content. We work with senior managers or trustees to review and consider the options, to look at potential courses of action, and to identify the potential issues and risks. We also help our clients to put in place appropriate policies and guidance for members, supporters and others, to help mitigate the risk of these tricky issues arising in the first place.

Briefings Charities Russell-Cooke reputation management social media Carla Whalen charities