Veterinary practices across the UK will have a broad range of attitudes to the strategic importance of social media which can range from promoting their culture, the business or connecting with clients and likeminded colleagues. There is no doubt that the use of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter can bring an array of benefits to the practice. On the other hand, there are a number of sound reasons why vets’ practices may hesitate to use social media or simply refuse to use it at all.
Each practice should aim to manage its social media correctly and understand the legal implications of not doing so – we look here at the main legal issues for practices using social media.
Confidentiality and data protection
You may want to promote your success stories by posting or blogging on social media about a particular surgery performed or a new approach which is very effective. But if you are going to refer to or feature a client’s pet, you will need to gain the owner’s consent first. If the client did not give consent and later found a post or blog on social media about their pet, this could cause them distress. They might go one step further and claim that the practice breached its duty of confidentiality.
Any posts or blogs that contains personal data of staff or clients must comply with the data protection laws, so consent from the staff member or client involved should be obtained before posting or blogging. Obtaining consent is the best way to limit any possible liability for data breaches. The Data Protection Act 2018 and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) impose obligations on those who process personal data, as well as providing protection for individuals about whom data is collected. A breach of data protection laws may result in an investigation from the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) who may impose fines. The member of staff or client could claim for damages by way of compensation for any loss caused as a result of the breach.
To avoid breaches of confidentiality and data protection laws, practices should ensure that consent is obtained. It would also be wise to train staff on how to use social media, put a social media policy in place and make sure that staff know what is acceptable under that policy. Review that annually to make sure that it is always in line with the practice’s aims and values.
Photos are protected by copyright law, but sometimes it can be difficult to be certain who owns that copyright. Practitioners may post photos to their social media of their clients’ pets – if the photo is taken by the practice and then uploaded, it is normally the case that the copyright belongs to the practice. However, if the practice uses a photo taken by someone else, it is much more difficult to establish who owns the photo’s copyright.
So, if you use a photograph from elsewhere, make sure that you have the appropriate consent and credit is given to the copyright owner and that the necessary releases are obtained from anyone shown in the photograph, to avoid any problems later.
Trade mark law
Consent is equally important when dealing with trade marked products – you may, for instance, post or blog about a particular branded product or treatment which is proving successful. It is crucial that you make it clear, when doing this, which business or entity the product or treatment belongs to, especially if the product or treatment is used in the course of trade, and that you get permission to feature it. If you do not get permission, you may be infringing the registered brand owner’s trade mark rights.
There are clear benefits for practices using social media, in terms of engaging with clients, potential clients and the local community; it can also support overall growth. But do be aware of how to avoid legal difficulties caused by its use; the practical steps we cover here will help you to prevent problems by getting consents, implementing sound social media policies and providing staff with appropriate training.