Okay. We’ve all seen it. The disgusting, disturbing photo a Taco Bell employee posted to Facebook depicting himself licking a stack of taco shells. Turns the stomach of this Taco Bell enthusiast (who knew one needed Doritos Cool Ranch locos tacos–genius, Taco Bell, just genius). It reminds us, of course, of the infamous Domino’s Pizza and Burger King employees who engaged in similarly disgusting behavior. Such conduct brings shudders to all of us involved in helping our clients build strong brands.

While I think that social media on the whole is a force for good, it does, unfortunately, enable folks who–intentionally or not–have negative designs on your brand to act on those negative vibes. The question is, of course, how to ensure the productive and positive use of social media by everyone: franchisors, franchisees, employees and customers.

taco_bowlsFor the past two years, I have hosted Roundtable discussions at the IFA Convention on social media law. The discussions have been energetic, and a number of key themes have emerged from those discussions:

1. Franchisors and franchisees need to be choosy and savvy. This may seem like stating the obvious, but problems start at the beginning. Due diligence about the types and extent of social media used by a franchise system is important, and the social mediums should be tailored to the business. For example, geolocational services might a short time ago been seen as something only for impulse purchases like frozen desserts but now may impact businesses like mobile window cleaning.

2. Write it down. I cannot stress this enough. Write down your system’s social media policies, add it to the system operating manual, and make sure you get signed receipts acknowledging receipt of and a promise to adhere to the policies. I hear from some franchisors that they think they can’t have such policies because they have long-term agreements with franchisees written before the explosion of social media. In that case, your contract clauses regarding a franchisee’s use of the brand’s trademarks, copyrights and other intellectual property often provide a vehicle for adoption and enforcement of a social media policy. You write down your business plan and your budgets; don’t make your treatment of social media any different.

3. Maintain Control. Orphan sites containing outdated information about locations, contact information, and owners abound. They hurt the brand. Franchisors must ensure its policy provides the franchisor owns any website, blog site, Twitter account, Facebook account, and/or any other site created on a social media platform involving the brand. Equally important, the policy must require franchisees to provide, and update, their franchisors with the then-current passwords for any social media involving the brand. This requirement should be included in the list of franchisee obligations in the franchise agreement. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the franchisor to offer robust and suitable social media options for the use of franchisees.

4. Guidance, Maintenance and Training. Franchisors train their franchisees on everything from site selection, to store layout, to accounting. That list must include social media. The brand’s presentation of its mythos and ethos should be consistent across all platforms. This would of course include an explanation of what it is legal and illegal, such as compliance with the advertising and financial disclosure requirements of the FTC, and an explanation that employees’ private chat rooms are private and do not justify adverse action against employees. It may also include things like ensuring that photos of a child day care or art studio system do not disclose personal information. Maintenance of the policy further requires vigilance on the part of the franchisor so as to ensure the guidelines are followed.

5. Careful selection and training of employees in the brand’s social media policies. Again, while this sounds obvious, the Taco Bell example demonstrates what happens when someone who does not respect the brand is hired. Enthusiasm and respect for the brand are infectious. When strong policies are combined with effective training and vigilance of employees who believe in the brand, employees become brand ambassadors.

The above five items are the key to legally protecting your brand in the social media era. I also think they provide a road map for an essential, effective policy. I welcome your comments or suggestions regarding this topic.