Businesses across industries rely on social media to connect with their audience—including brands in highly regulated industries like the financial, government and healthcare sectors.
But for these brands the stakes for using social are especially high, as they face considerable legal and regulatory risks. Failing to meet social media compliance obligations could result in major blowback, like reputation ruin, steep fines and legal action. Ultimately, the reward of using social is greater than the risk—it just needs to be managed appropriately.
To stay ahead of the potential pitfalls, brands should use strategic communication tactics and adhere to industry-specific guidelines and laws. In this guide, we’re exploring how you can factor regulatory bodies and laws into your social media strategy, considerations brands take to stay in the clear and tools that can help alleviate risk.
Social media compliance is the ongoing process of following the rules and laws set forth by regulatory bodies, platforms and your company when operating on social. For many brands, social compliance is a multi-step procedure that requires many approvals and spans departments—including legal, your company’s compliance north star. Your social and legal teams should regularly collaborate to ensure your brand understands and implements evolving guidelines and new precedents.
While specific social media compliance regulations vary by industry, here are the general risks to look out for when at the helm of the brand account.
Employees’ individual social media use
Employees using social media to talk about your company is a good thing, as they can be some of your best brand advocates. According to a Q1 2023 Sprout pulse survey, 87% of Millennials feel more connected to brands when they see employees sharing information online.
Yet, the dangers of employees’ individual social media use are massive. They could accidentally break confidentiality agreements, share your brand’s intellectual property or put customer data at risk. There’s also a chance they say something that goes against your brand’s values, leading to a PR crisis. Even if employees don’t say something about your business directly, if they list you as their employer and post something inappropriate, it could still reflect poorly on your company.
To proactively mitigate these risks, you should develop a strong employee social media policy. A well-crafted policy can do much more than protect your brand’s reputation—it protects your company’s security, privacy and legal interests.
Data collection and management
Customer data management is an everyday part of social media and digital marketing. It makes it possible to engage your audience in the right way by creating customer-centric strategies and personalized experiences. From social data alone, you can learn about your customers’ demographic and psychographic information, interests and hobbies, other brands they follow, what content they engage with and their feelings toward your brand, products and industry.
Improper data collection leads to steep consequences (read more about the repercussions outlined in the next section). Without effective management strategies in place, your customer data is subject to data breaches that cost you customers’ trust, which can result in business loss and legal damages.
With so much rich customer data available, proper management is key. The data you have is only as good as your ability to use it. To optimize managing and sharing customer data at your organization:
- Gather information with customer consent.
- Invest in management software.
- Train your team.
- Regularly back up and update your data.
Use of influencer and user-generated content
According to The Sprout Social Index™ 2022, 39% of consumers like to see brands share real customer demos or testimonials on their social profiles. That’s where user-generated content (UGC) comes in. It’s a mutually beneficial form of engagement—brands get connected with fans organically showing off their product or service and those fans in return get noticed, featured and a boost to their following.
Sharing your customers’ posts on social comes with its own set of compliance standards. Using UGC without permission dampens your relationship with your customers. Legally, it can also lead to copyright infringement or violation of privacy laws. Creators might rightfully require you to compensate them before sharing their content in some cases.
Your brand will also be culpable if the UGC you repost contains offensive content. Hate speech, false claims or other obscene content can result in a PR disaster, network ban or legal consequences.
Practice your due diligence by always asking for consent before reposting UGC (usually a DM will suffice, but check with your legal counsel) and ensuring the content and the creator reflect your brand’s values.
A recent study revealed that 75% of brands have been exposed to a brand safety incident in the past year. Nearly half of those companies received backlash on social media because of those incidents.
Brand safety typically refers to preventing ads from running alongside inappropriate or offensive content. When this happens, consumers might confuse the ad with an endorsement of the content itself. Almost half of consumers say their perception of a brand is negatively affected when it appears alongside an offensive post or video.
Unfortunately, as marketers, we can’t control what people post online, but by building brand safety guidelines into your social media strategy you can employ risk prevention strategies. Define what “inappropriate content” means at your organization and how you will respond if a crisis emerges.
For brands in regulated industries, social media poses major hazards. From costly data breaches to unapproved claims going viral, there’s potential for legal violations around every corner.
By following social media compliance guidelines from your industry’s regulatory body, you can maximize the benefits of social while minimizing your company’s risks.
Here are the specific regulatory bodies that govern high-risk industries.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
- Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)
Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
Regulated segments: All US industries
The FTC is a US government agency that protects consumers and competition by preventing “anticompetitive, deceptive and unfair business practices” through law enforcement, advocacy and education.
The FTC works to stop deceptive advertising and unapproved claims from saturating the market. On social, FTC Truth in Advertising guidelines are enforced. While many brands are familiar with these guidelines from other media channels, average citizens are not. Which explains why many FTC infractions on social media are committed by influencers with brand partnerships.
According to the FTC, influencers must clearly disclose their “material connection” to a brand if they endorse a product on social. Even if influencers or creators are de-influencing, sharing an unbiased opinion or simply showing a picture or video of a product, they must disclose if it was provided for free or at a discounted price. The FTC expects businesses to play an active role in educating the influencers they partner with. Read their complete guide to social media disclosures for more information.
The FTC also cracks down on fake or deceptive reviews and customer data mismanagement as a part of their efforts to prevent deceptive advertising.
US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Regulated segments: US food, beverage, pet food, pharmaceutical, tobacco, cosmetic industries and electronic companies with radioactive products
The FDA’s mission is to protect public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products and medical devices. It also ensures the safety of the US food supply, cosmetics and products that emit radiation.
When using social, food, drug and cosmetic manufacturers should follow FDA guidelines, and only make true and non-misleading promotional claims. That means all ads and promos should include the intended use of the product and relevant risks. The FDA also denotes that all social media posts endorsed by a brand—including user-generated content and employee posts—must meet relevant guidelines and approvals.
The FDA provides clear guidance for brands who encounter false information circulating about their product online. Your response should be:
- Relevant, timely and responsive
- Succinct and tailored to the information at hand
- Consistent with FDA labeling about the product
When responding to misinformation about your product online, you should also use supportive evidence and disclose that the person providing the correction is a part of your business.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
Regulated segments: US healthcare industry
HIPAA privacy laws protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed publicly, including on social media. Sensitive patient health information includes data about a patient’s past, present or future medical conditions, provision of healthcare to the individual and past, present or future healthcare payments.
The HIPAA Privacy Rule expressly protects patient health information as it relates to how the data is shared, including in marketing and advertising efforts. In the age of sharing patient before and after photos, testimonials and other sensitive information, healthcare providers should exercise extreme caution. To post about your patients on social, you must first obtain valid, HIPAA-compliant consent.
We put together a HIPAA compliance cheat sheet to help you protect patient privacy and stay compliant on social.
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
Regulated segments: All industries who market to individuals in the EU
The GDPR is an EU law that protects consumer data. On the GDPR website, the law is described as the “toughest privacy law in the world.” With global fines reaching €20 million or 4% of global profits, there are steep repercussions for those who fail to comply.
To follow GDPR guidelines, your consumer data collection should be:
- Lawful and fair
- Processed for an intentional purpose
- Used minimally
- Stored for a limited period of time
- Accurate and up to date
- Confidential and compliant
You are only allowed to access personal data if you receive clear GDPR-compliant consent, enter a contract, are mandated to comply with a legal obligation, are sharing out of public interest or if you require the data to save someone’s life.
Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA)
Regulated segments: US financial industry
FINRA self-regulates US broker deals, and ensures every securities product advertisement is truthful and non-misleading.
FINRA regulations protect consumers from fake, misleading claims in the financial industry, and mandate anyone who sells a securities product has been tested, qualified and licensed.
Like FTC regulations, FINRA authority extends to influencers. When working with influencers, the regulatory body urges financial firms to:
- Clearly differentiate between influencer and referral programs in promotional materials
- Evaluate the influencer’s background for compliance and reputational risks before working together
- Provide training that clearly defines FINRA-regulated conduct
- Address all influencer risks and compliance concerns
FINRA also protects customer nonpublic information by holding firms accountable for complying with privacy laws and regulations. For example, firms must deliver privacy notices, permit customers to opt out and maintain agreements with third parties to limit data storage.
Here are some examples of ways brands across regulated industries factor social media compliance into their strategies.
Heath Care Service Corporation (HCSC) is the nation’s largest customer-owned health insurer, and one of the largest overall. An independent licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, HCSC operates health plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, serving more than 17 million members.
HCSC’s social media team is at the forefront of the company’s engagement online. To govern the company’s social content and community engagement in a regulated industry, HCSC created social media guardrails and guidelines, which they review routinely.
HCSC plans’ social media channels promote content to encourage health and wellness, highlight the company’s work to address the social determinants of health and can touch on sensitive health information that needs to be handled with delicacy.
HCSC also has a crisis management plan in place to address catastrophic events.
“Creating our crisis plan was a three-step process. First, we collaborated across the organization to have messages ready to share from different departments (from customer service to legal). Once messages were ready to share, we created action plans and messaging to support our customers in need (i.e., plans to help them get access to care or medication). Finally, we set up a social media command center to continuously monitor social and the news cycle.” — Olman Hernandez, Manager of Digital Communications and Social Media, HCSC
Despite regulatory challenges and unforeseen circumstances, Olman believes it’s still possible for healthcare brands to be present—and successful—on social. Just make sure your brand is compliant and stays true to your voice. As he says, “We take a serious tone because that is what’s right for our brand and what best serves our members.”
HCSC still finds ways to infuse personality and authenticity into their social presence, though. For example, they tailor their content to audiences in each state, like this post from the Texas Plan.
Apply it: Take a cue from HCSC and make sure your team are experts in your industry’s regulations. Create company-wide policies that help you stay compliant with the guidance of regulatory bodies and prepare for the unexpected. But remember: It’s still social media. Find ways to infuse a human touch into your presence, even if your brand voice is more conservative or serious.
Looking for more ways to meet your patients’ needs on social? Check out our guide to social media and healthcare.
Bank of America, the second largest bank in the US, is an example of a financial institution that must follow the governance of regulatory bodies like the FTC and FINRA. As such, they must be extremely careful when advertising and selling their tools and services—avoiding misleading claims and information in their promos, and clearly explaining the benefits they tout.
Bank of America expertly navigates these compliance considerations by using their social feeds to educate their audience about common financial questions, without providing personalized financial advice or making outlandish claims. They also use a large percentage of their feed to generate buzz about major races and events they sponsor—defusing risk and celebrating their brand’s culture.
Apply it: Make your mark on the financial sector (while remaining compliant) by providing your followers with the resources they need most, whether that’s a guide to tax season or tips on managing their money during an unpredictable economy. Don’t forget to raise awareness of your other efforts, too—from events you’re sponsoring to DEI initiatives in the financial sector.
For more, read our complete guide to social media for banks.
For the City of Las Vegas, social media is key to increasing engagement from citizens and tourists alike—while streamlining the communication of important civic announcements. In many ways, social is like a 24/7 town hall meeting between the city, leaders and constituents. It’s key to promoting local business and events, humanizing the city government and building trust.
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Some of the biggest challenges government agencies and leaders face on social media are related to the spread of misinformation. By staying on top of trending news and speaking up in a timely manner, the City of Las Vegas curbs the spread of false stories. “Social media allows us to present accurate information directly to the public,” said Shane Savanapridi, Public Information Officer at the City of Las Vegas. “We don’t have to rely on traditional news agencies.”
To protect the data and privacy of citizens, government agencies like the City of Las Vegas must stay current on evolving local, state and federal guidelines.
Apply it: Use social to engage citizens in your constituency. Create “edutainment” content that educates and entertains your audience, while quickly responding to misinformation and crises. Above all, remember to respect the privacy and user data of your followers and citizens you represent.
Want to see more examples of engaging content from government agencies? Read our guide to social media and government.
Navigating social media compliance is an intricate process that typically requires the input of multiple teams and stakeholders across social, PR, marketing and legal.
By using the right tools—like the ones we describe in this section—your team will be empowered to break down the complexity of compliance and work together seamlessly.
Secure social media management solution
Operating in a centralized, secure social media platform like Sprout Social is essential to ensuring your brand and customer data is safe. It is the best way to prioritize social media governance. Draft messages, respond to customer inquiries and analyze social data all from one management solution—while feeling confident you aren’t putting sensitive information at risk.
Sprout’s privacy program mandates that your data will be protected, limited to what is absolutely necessary and only stored for a limited time. Furthermore, Sprout will honor and respect deletion requests at any time. We are compliant with major privacy laws like GDPR and offer product security features that meet or exceed industry standards.
Quality assurance tools
When multiple stakeholders need to review your content, it can be a struggle to move at the speed of social while remaining compliant with industry protocol. Optimize your social media workflow by using tools that streamline your approval process.
For example, Sprout’s Message Approval Workflows automate the process of submitting content for review and gaining approvals. The tool enables fellow platform users and external teams to review content and submit comments in the same place the social team schedules posts. Working within the platform saves your team time—freeing up space for creative strategizing. It also adds an extra layer of visibility and organization for teams outside of social, which will prevent human error and preventable oversight.
Employee advocacy enablement
As we mentioned, employees are strong brand advocates and they play an essential role in amplifying your content. But the risks involved in employee social media use can be daunting. With a platform like Employee Advocacy by Sprout Social, you can add all your shareable content so employees can quickly and easily post approved content to their social networks. Share the content alongside pre-approved message ideas so your employees can feel confident they’re staying on-brand.
Navigating social media can be a challenge for any business, but brands in regulated industries like healthcare, finance and government face additional compliance roadblocks. Each of these sectors is under significant pressure to balance growing their social presence, engaging their audience and following the guidelines drawn by regulatory agencies.
By using the right tools, your team is empowered to protect your brand’s reputation, build customer loyalty and put protocol in place to meet regulatory guidelines. Request a personalized demo to speak with a member of the Sprout Social team to see how our platform’s security features, flexible tools and intuitive user experience can help you ensure social media compliance.