On 18 September 2023, the Charity Commission published its new guidance for charities on using social media. For the first time, this guidance sets out in one place what the Charity Commission expects charities to do in relation to its social media use and sets out the related risks for trustees and how their legal duties apply.
In this article, Jo Coleman sets out a summary of the guidance and explains the actions that you and your teams should now take.
Social media has been an integral part of many charities communications and engagement strategies for at least the last decade. With many social media channels now feeling like hostile terrain, charities can find themselves the subject of critical or aggressive online comments, and the fast-pace of social media can greatly increase the risk that things get quickly out of hand. There have also been a number of recent high-profile cases where a charity has found itself scrutinised by the Charity Commission as a result of its online communications. So, the time was right for the Charity Commission to publish new and clear guidance for trustees on what they should do when using social media channels, and what the Charity Commission now expects. It also provides some guidance on the blurred lines of social media – such as when personal opinion and professional can overlap. The guidance sets a high bar for charities. We have considered below its six key sections.
Adopt a social media policy
First, the Charity Commission makes it very clear that if your charity uses social media, then they expect your charity to have a social media policy. Your social media policy will need to be tailored to your charity's specific use and the level of risk that it presents - there isn't a one size fits all policy that will work for all. Helpfully, the Charity Commission has set out a checklist to guide you through what should be included in your policy. They have also signposted a template developed by CharityComms, which will be a helpful starting point.
The policy should contain:
- Guidelines for trustees, staff and volunteers when they use social media on behalf of the charity
- How you will engage on social media – whether you will moderate comments, respond to questions, deal with criticisms, publish a corrective statement
- Who is responsible for the day-to-day management of social media channels, and who needs to be involved when a problem arises. This should make it clear what the trustees' roles are and when they should be involved
- How your charity uses social media to help deliver your charity's purposes, so that you can be clear about why you are posting on wider public issues that may not seem directly relevant to your charity (eg support for the national football team).
Once you have created your policy and it has been approved by your trustees, it then needs to be cascaded through the charity, so all staff and volunteers are familiar with the guidelines – in particular with your guidelines on the use of personal social media accounts. You should think about what your staff induction and training looks like in this regard. Should an incident arise which leads to regulatory scrutiny, having a clear policy in place which the charity has followed, will help to demonstrate sufficient oversight and management.
The Charity Commission's guidance observes that people behave differently online and makes clear that your social media policy along with the training that you put in place for trustees, staff and volunteers needs to make very clear that your charity should not post inappropriate content (set out below):
- Harmful content – which causes a person distress or harm
- Inconsistent with your charity's purposes
- Not in your charity's best interests
- Is in breach of the law.
You should also ensure that your charity is complying with all relevant laws including GDPR, privacy, copyright, defamation, whistleblower protection and equality and human rights law. They also note that social media posts can be criminal, where they constitute hate crime or are malicious or threatening.
The Charity Commission also reminds charities to be aware of the rules or condes of conduct on the platforms that you are using, and be clear about how you can take steps on that platform where your charity comes under attack.
The guidance also recommends undertaking a risk assessment where your charity is using social media with vulnerable individuals or tackling emotive issues. So that if a complaint is raised, you can show that you considered the issues carefully and can justify why you decided to post in a particular way.
On your charity's social media accounts
You will need to be clear who is responsible for your social media accounts and who can post or share content. You also need to be clear what action will be taken if there is a breach of your policy or if a post risks significantly damaging your charity's reputation. This includes managing any conflicts of interest properly when taking any remediation action and reporting serious incidents where the threshold is met.
On personal social media accounts - content posted or shared by trustees, employees or volunteers
This was one of the most controversial sections of the guidance during the consultation period. The revised guidance sets a better balance. It recognises that trustees, employees and volunteers have a right to exercise their freedom of expression within the law when using personal social media accounts. And that this use can include supporting a political party or a particular candidate – which a charity could never do.
They have also made clear that they do not expect trustees to monitor personal social media accounts.
However, where the charity becomes aware of content posted or shared by an individual being associated with and having a negative effect on the charity, the guidance states that trustees should consider what action to take to protect the charity.
The guidance recognises that there will be greater risk if higher profile individuals who are publicly associated with the charity post content on their social media accounts e.g. the Chairman or the Chief Executive.
However, the guidance doesn't set any hard and fast rules in this regard. Instead it makes a number of suggestions for how trustees could navigate this tricky space between the professional and the private.
- Making clear to all that if they disclose their place of work or role with the charity on their social media account, then any posts may negatively impact on the charity
- That higher profile members of the team who are publicly associated with the charity, should take particular care as personal views may be misinterpreted as being the views of the charity
- Including a statement on their accounts, that their views are their own and not those of the charity
- Reference to any relevant HR policies.
Engaging with the public
The guidance makes it clear that where others post inappropriate or illegal content on your charity's social media pages, then you should be clear what action should be taken, including blocking users or reporting it to the Police.
The guidance also urges trustees to consider the issues of moderation of content posted on your platforms, and whether these tools can help to keep your charity safe.
Content from connected organisations
Where you work publicly with partners, trustees should also manage the risks of being unduly associated with comments made by them.
For most, this probably means having an agreed set of actions where you become aware that a partner's post may bring the charity into disrepute. In your partnership agreements, you should include appropriate legal expectations around partners associating themselves with your charity on social media.
Engaging on emotive topics
A charity's purposes can be emotive and garner strong reactions. Where your charity is engaging in emotive issues to further your charity's purposes and it is clear that such engagement is in your charity's best interests, that is permitted.
However emotive topics have a higher risk profile. So before embarking on any emotive campaign, you will need to have considered:
- The risks to the charity, and any mitigating actions.
- The impact of the campaign on staff time – for example if complaints or negative attention follows.
- Whether you have a complaints process that is fit for purpose and will allow you to address any complaints in a timely manner.
- Whether you are complying with the advertising and broadcasting codes.
The guidance also advises charities that they may be able to mitigate the risks of significant public criticism by ensuring that social media activity is conducted with "respect and tolerance". The recent example of the RSPCA tweet calling the Prime Minister and other senior ministers 'liars' in a social media post, and the subsequent apology that was issued by the charity demonstrates these issues clearly. In issuing the apology the Chief Executive said "The reason we issued our apology is that we do believe that the nature of public discourse does matter and that we have a role to play in that, and that we campaign on policy, not on people. So, the framing of that tweet, where we called out individual people, we felt was incorrect and inappropriate, and we apologise for that."
Campaigning or political activity on social media
If you are engaging in campaigning or political activity online, then there is an additional layer of guidance of which you must be aware. Trustees will want to remind themselves of CC9 Campaigning and political activity guidance for charities and take particular care as we run in to the next General Election.
The guidance reminds all trustees to ensure they comply in full with the Code of Fundraising Practice and points out that any criticisms of a fundraising campaign can be amplified by social media – and so urges caution.
Staying safe online
As with all online matters, the guidance urges trustees to ensure that their accounts are safe and to know what to do if fake accounts are created or your accounts are hacked. The Guidance links to further supporting guidance published by the National Cyber Security Centre.
The guidance does not adequately recognise the fast-paced nature of social media or difficult and hostile environment found on many social media platforms. It sets a high bar for the standards it expects for trustees in adopting a social media policy and then in monitoring and dealing with issues that arise. What is clear is that this is no longer something that can be left to the digital manager or the communications team, it has to be owned and overseen by your trustees. We would suggest that as a first step you share this article with trustees and they consider how to best shape a policy which is appropriate for your charity. This may be a learning curve for some trustees and the world of social media changes fast. This is a policy which will need to be reviewed regularly, especially as new forms of social media emerge and different risks arise.