A Blueprint for Policies in Dealerships

At this point, a large number of dealerships have jumped into using social media for one purpose or another—marketing and branding, reputation management, customer relationship management, even lead generation. Even if your dealership has not jumped on the social media bandwagon, however, you can be assured that at least some (if not the majority) of your employees are either occasional or avid users. Some of your salespeople may already be using Facebook or Twitter to communicate with current customers or prospects via their own personal accounts. That being the case, it may soon, if it has not already, become necessary for you to address the proper use of social media by both the dealership and individual employees, and determine what your policies should be.

Dealers who embrace using social media in the dealership seem to be of differing opinions on whether or not formal guidelines are needed for employees. Some dealers believe that it is necessary to provide rules and structure only when employees are representing the dealership on social media in an official capacity—posting on the dealership’s Facebook page, contributing to the dealership’s blog or otherwise assisting in the dealership’s reputation management. Other dealers believe that guidelines are needed to address employees’ individual conduct during personal social media use, especially if it relates to their work in any way. Still others are of the opinion that trusting employees to responsibly represent the dealership on social media, whether in a personal or professional capacity, is no different than trusting them to represent the dealership over the phone or out in public; they believe that if they hire the right people it shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

Chris Boudreaux, senior vice president of services at social media agency Converseon and creator of the website SocialMediaGovernance.com, in his December 16, 2009, report entitled, “Analysis of Social Media Policies: Lessons and Best Practices,” suggested that a company create at least two policies: “One policy that sets the expectations and boundaries for all employees, including any relevant limitations or suggestions for the personal use of social media,” and “Operational guidelines for employees working on social media as part of their job.”

Employees’ Individual Use of Social Media
While you can’t exactly dictate how your employees use their personal social media accounts, you can provide some guidance as to appropriate conduct when their use of social media intersects with their professional life, and having these guidelines written down as part of company policy might just protect the dealership from the FTC if an employee behaves improperly online. Jim Radogna of Dealer Compliance Consultants noted in a July 27, 2011, blog post on AutoDealerPeople.com, “According to FTC guidelines, ‘The Commission agrees that the establishment of appropriate procedures would warrant consideration in its decision as to whether law enforcement action would be appropriate use of agency resources. The Commission is not aware of any instance in which an enforcement action was brought against a company for the actions of a single ‘rogue’ employee who violated established company policy that adequately covered the conduct in question.’”

Thankfully, establishing social media guidelines pertaining to employees’ individual use of social media needn’t involve pages upon pages of rules. There are some guidelines for employee social media use that seem to be universal among businesses in many different industries:

• Any use of social media for work purposes should be confined to your work day. Any social media activities pertaining to work that are conducted outside normal work hours will be considered optional and voluntary on your part.

• Be transparent. If a conversation pertains to the business or the automotive industry, identify yourself as an employee of the dealership. If you have a vested interest in what is being discussed, be the first to point it out.

• When posting comments on matters related to the business and the automotive industry, identify your views as your own personal opinions and not reflective of the views of the dealership’s owners or management.

• Be honest. Don’t post anything that is untrue or misleading, and don’t encourage others to post anything untrue or misleading about the dealership, such as a fake “customer” review.

• If you encounter something that requires an official response from the dealership, such as negative comments about the kind of service a customer received or a false statement about an individual at the dealership or about the dealership itself, relay the information to the appropriate person in management so that the matter may be dealt with through the proper channels. Do not attempt to respond on behalf of the dealership.

• Be courteous and have respect for others. This means respect for individuals, respect for the dealership and respect for competitors. Don’t make derogatory comments about the competition, whether it’s a competing dealership or another vehicle manufacturer. Respectfully acknowledge differences of opinion and don’t pick fights. Don’t use language that may be deemed offensive, inappropriate, demeaning, threatening or abusive. If you speak about others, do not disparage them or state anything that is not factual.

• Protect confidential and proprietary information, and respect others’ privacy. Customer information must be protected in accordance with the dealership’s information safeguards and privacy policy. Do not identify a customer without their express permission; this includes posting photographs of their new vehicle or commenting/congratulating them on their purchase. Do not reveal proprietary information regarding dealership operations.

• Respect copyright and fair use laws. Don’t claim authorship of someone else’s work; always attribute quoted information to its original author or source. Do not post copyrighted information without written reprint authorization. As a general rule, it is better to simply link to information you wish to share rather than repost it.

• Remember that the Internet is everywhere, and it is permanent. Anything you post can be read not only by friends and family but possibly by other dealership personnel and competing dealerships. Also, search engines and other technologies make it virtually impossible to take something back once it’s “out there.” Think before you post.

• Engage in meaningful dialogue. Try to add value to a discussion and provide worthwhile information and perspective. For example, don’t merely jump into a discussion about a 2012 Chevrolet Camaro to tell someone you can get them a great deal on one. No one appreciates random solicitations. Think more along the lines of commenting that you drove one when it first arrived at the dealership and were really impressed with the V6 engine on the 2LS trim.

• Own up to your mistakes and correct them. If you have misstated something or been in the wrong, admit your mistake up-front and move quickly to correct it.

Use of Social Media in the Dealership
Social media sites can be great assets for a dealership when it comes to advertising and/or marketing as well as reputation management, if they are used correctly. When used incorrectly or carelessly, social media can bring headaches and even legal trouble. Here are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to your dealership’s use of social media:

• Although social media sites are regarded as comparatively casual communication channels in contrast to traditional media, any advertising activities conducted on social media are subject to the same rules. Any advertising you do or anything you post that could be construed as advertising, including the posting of inventory, must meet state and federal truth-in-advertising standards. Also be aware that the Federal CAN-SPAM Act can apply to messages sent by commercial social networking sites.

• Don’t tweet about or post every bit of inventory you have on Facebook. Most dealers have already figured out that this can be a real turnoff for social media followers; it clogs up other users’ news feeds and is considered annoying. That isn’t to say you can never post about your inventory. If you take in a particularly interesting or unique vehicle on trade or get a handful of a certain in-demand new model from the manufacturer, by all means, use it to generate interest. However, if you post listing after listing, eventually others will simply tune it out as virtual white noise or drop you altogether. Also, keep in mind that the posting of inventory could be considered an advertisement and as such is subject to state and federal regulations.

• Have a set procedure in place for dealing with any negative comments about the dealership encountered online. Designate someone in dealership management to deal with and respond to negative comments, and make certain employees understand that they are to notify that individual about such encounters rather than attempt to respond on their own. This way, you can ensure that everything is dealt with in the same manner and consistent with the best interests of the dealership.

• Don’t post fake reviews. By that same token, don’t alter or omit content or otherwise manipulate the content of a review. The Federal Trade Commission’s Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising state, “Endorsements must reflect the honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experience of the Endorser … [T]he endorsement may not be presented out of context or reworded so as to distort in any way the endorser’s opinion or experience with the product.” The FTC can impose stiff penalties for violating its rules by planting or allowing someone else to plant fake reviews.

• Keep in mind that while you can offer a customer an incentive such as a free oil change to write a review about the dealership, according to FTC regulations the customer writing the review must disclose the source and nature of any compensation they receive.

• Obtain permission from a customer before posting any photos or messages pertaining to that customer’s vehicle purchase online. They may not want everyone in the virtual world to know they just made a major purchase. Respect their privacy.

• If you opt to hire a third-party company to help manage your online reputation or social media presence, be certain that company is aware of and adheres to state and federal advertising regulations as well as your dealership’s own social media policies.

• If a customer expresses dissatisfaction online with how something was handled by the dealership or believes a mistake was made, don’t get defensive and don’t argue with them publicly. Acknowledge the customer’s feelings and request that the customer contact the dealership so that you can make a good faith effort to resolve the problem to their satisfaction.

HR Use of Social Media
The use of social media by a company’s human resource department, either to monitor current employees or screen job applicants, has been hotly debated recently as more and more reports emerge of employers seeking to gain access to current or prospective employees’ social media accounts. In some cases, employers have gone so far as to demand social media login and password information from individuals who have set their profiles to use the highest privacy settings. Facebook specifically addressed this trend in a March 23, 2012, post by Erin Egan, Chief Privacy Officer, Policy, Facebook:

“In recent months, we’ve seen a distressing increase in reports of employers or others seeking to gain inappropriate access to people’s Facebook profiles or private information.  This practice undermines the privacy expectations and the security of both the user and the user’s friends.  It also potentially exposes the employer who seeks this access to unanticipated legal liability. The most alarming of these practices is the reported incidences of employers asking prospective or actual employees to reveal their passwords.” The post went on to note that Facebook has “made it a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password.”

A March 20, 2012, article by Manuel Valdes and Shannon McFarland of the Associated Press noted that some employers, rather than asking for employees’ logins and passwords, are asking applicants to “friend” the company’s HR manager or to log into their social media accounts during interviews. The article also noted, “Questions have been raised about the legality of the practice, which is also the focus of proposed legislation in Illinois and Maryland that would forbid public agencies from asking for access to social networks.”

A March 25, 2012, Associated Press article noted that Senators Charles E. Schumer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut were calling on the Justice Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to begin investigations into whether employers asking for Facebook passwords during job interviews are violating federal law. In a press release also dated March 25, 2012, and posted on Senator Blumenthal’s website (blumenthal.senate.gov), the senator stated, “I am alarmed and outraged by rapidly and widely spreading employer practices seeking access to Facebook passwords or confidential information on other social networks .… A ban on these practices is necessary to stop unreasonable and unacceptable invasions of privacy.”

Dealer Compliance Consultants, in its “Social Media Policy Guidebook for Auto Dealerships,” said that “friending” an applicant should be avoided and could potentially open an employer up to invasion of privacy claims by potential employees. Even if an individual has not restricted access to their social media profile information and it is easily discovered during an Internet search, this can still be potentially problematic for an employer. That same publication notes, “When a job candidate is the subject of a social media search there’s a possibility that the search will reveal information that would be off limits in an interview, such as age or marital status. Hiring managers should be very careful in using private information people are posting publicly to make hiring decisions.” This practice could open a dealership to allegations of discrimination.

The publication also points out that even if the hiring manager did not rely on anything unlawful, the information on social media sites might not be reliable. For these reasons and more, according to Dealer Compliance Consultants, “Given the real possibility for inappropriate and illegal uses in the hiring context, organizations need to carefully consider how, if at all, they utilize the sites when screening candidates.”

To insulate the dealership from this type of risk, an outside agency could be used to screen potential employees. However, dealers need to make certain any such third-party company follows the correct procedures and that the dealership’s job applications contain the necessary notifications. According to Dealer Compliance Consultants, “If an employers uses a third party to conduct searches on job candidates, the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and applicable state law on background checks likely will apply.”

Related: Resources to Help You Formulate a Social Media Policy

Vol. 9, Issue 5

About the author
Kimberly Long

Kimberly Long

Assistant Editor

View Bio