Filed Under:Agent Broker, Sales & Marketing

Social media: Proceed with caution

Facebook and Twitter are a great way for agents and brokers to engage clients and prospects, but...

Agents need to protect their brand when using social media.
Agents need to protect their brand when using social media.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube. Even though use of these social networking channels is booming across the corporate sector, the Society for Human Resource Management found that only 40 percent of businesses have a policy ragarding social media. When considering companies with fewer than 100 employees, that number drops to 26 percent, the survey reported.

Everything from innocent mistakes to rogue employees can have dramatic consequences for an agency, and in the online world, regrettable tweets and poorly planned blog posts have a long lifespan. The potential damage from an exposure is becoming more widely known, and insurers are rolling out cyber liability packages that include social media coverage. The days of spontaneous posting are over, and if your agency is part of that 40 percent, it’s time to control your online presence.

Agents need to protect their brand. As trusted advisors, producers’ reputations particularly are critical to building and maintaining solid books of business. Unfortunately, an agent’s credibility could suffer if social media use isn’t well managed. “If they do it incorrectly, reputation is going to take a big, big hit,” said Christine Marciano, CIPP, president of Cyber Data Risk Managers in Freehold, N.J. Information travels at lightning speed across the Internet, and an agency’s standing could go from hero to zero overnight. Protecting their reputations are so important that Marciano said she has seen a number of larger insurance firms take additional steps to ensure their social media channels are handled correctly. “They actually hire public relations firms to take care of it,” she said.

Related: Read the article "Punitive Damages and Social Media Transform Litigation" by Caterina Pontoriero.

George Francis, CPCU, president of Alta Vista Insurance Agency in Vista, Calif., didn’t hire a PR firm to manage his company’s social media efforts. Instead, he relies on the agency’s internal social media marketing specialist, Amanda Foster. “She knows more about that than I do,” Francis said, referring to Foster’s proficiency in engaging the agency’s Twitter and Facebook followers with relevant, interesting posts. He understands the impact that a single improper tweet can have on his company’s image, and his team works with Astonish, a digital marketing consultancy headquartered in Warwick, R.I., to maintain its reputation. “We’re counseled constantly from day one about the rights and the wrongs, and we attend seminars and webinars on an ongoing basis that give us the proper way to do things,” he said.

Agents and brokers in particular should be mindful of social networking’s pitfalls, because as agencies work to recruit younger producers, a generational gap is forming that plays right into the potential problems posed by social media. Stuart Ganis, executive vice president of consulting and business development at Astonish, said today’s younger professionals have essentially grown up with Facebook and Twitter. “For people in their 20s and 30s, this is all they know. This is how they communicate.” That familiarity often makes them more proficient with social media networks than their older colleagues, but also could lead them to be less diligent in monitoring what they post.

Just as important as maintaining a good reputation among clients is remaining in compliance with insurance regulations. Susan T. Stead, a partner in the Columbus, Ohio, office of Nelson Levine de Luca & Hamilton, said that agents must follow their state’s insurance laws regarding what they can and can’t do when it comes to marketing and advertising, and those same regulations apply to their online presence, too. “They need to think of what’s on their websites and social media sites as advertising and marketing,” she said. Would you put that information in a print ad? If not, sending it out through a social network may lead to problems. When online posts don’t conform to regulations, the agency could quickly find itself in trouble.

Know the pitfalls

You have ensured that your social media activities follow existing insurance company agreements you have in place, and your communications are in compliance with state insurance and advertising regulations. Stead said agents also should be cautious about what information they’re posting about insurance products, and what sort of coverage a particular product provides. “There are a lot of exceptions, and some people might not qualify for certain coverages,” she said, “or there may be coverage for something but then a number of exclusions.” Agencies that post detailed statements on their Facebook pages could be accused of providing misleading information. Even though there may be a host of legal reasons why an agent might win that case, Stead said, “You don’t want to be put in the position of fighting it in the first place.”

Marciano said she’s careful about what she discusses in the way of coverage on her social media feeds. “That could be a liability brought back to you through errors and omissions,” she said. Another potential outcome is that the dispute about coverage becomes a public event, with the client taking to social media to complain to the masses about your business practices. Even if you quickly rectify the situation, those negative comments can continue to haunt you as new people stumble across old, negative posts.

“We don’t talk about price, and we don’t talk about having the lowest price,” Francis said. “What we talk about is having the best coverage for the best price.” It’s a practice he said is designed to keep his team out of potential trouble. The social media strategy at Alta Vista avoids the pitfalls of what Francis described as “exaggerated claims or data that may in fact come back to bite you,” either because people misunderstand the information or because they think you have misrepresented a product or coverage.

Disclosing potentially sensitive information poses another major pitfall for producers. Posting anything regarding a client’s policy or account is “an absolute no-no,” Ganis said. “That needs to be a one-on-one conversation, such as a private email or phone call.” 

Related: Read the article "Social Media & EPLI: Minimal Impact—So Far" by Chad Hemenway.

Even a quick confirmation of an action can have unwanted repercussions, such as tweeting to a client that you forwarded their payment to the carrier. “I think you’re writing your own death sentence there,” Ganis said, “because what if you didn’t send it and it’s an E&O issue, and now it’s on social media?” Policy, service and coverage information simply doesn’t belong on a social media network, yet those things still pop up on Twitter and Facebook from time to time. 

All of the privacy laws that apply to agents in the office and on paper apply to social media. “If the agent is disclosing information they would otherwise never disclose to the public, they may have a problem,” Stead said. Remember that the somewhat fleeting nature of social media—tweets and Facebook posts that drop off the bottom of the screen after a day, or blog posts that are shuffled to the “older posts” section a week after being written—means past content is not removed from the purview of regulators. Even information posted by clients themselves could present a problem for agents. Stead offered the example of a customer who used a social media feed to report a claim and included personal information in the post. “It may not be a violation of the privacy laws, but it might be better to simply remove personal information if it is posted,” she said. That’s another reason agents should carefully and constantly monitor their online presence.

Third-party content is popular on social media, but it brings a host of possible issues, too. Earlier this year, Marciano discovered some of her blog content had been posted on another firm’s website without her consent and without any attribution to her. She contacted the company to ask that they remove the content, and fortunately they complied without an argument. Ganis knows of a situation where the unauthorized use of proprietary material could have had legal ramifications for an agency. Both instances are timely reminders that the Internet isn’t a free-for-all, and agents should be mindful about where their content comes from. Francis wrote many of the articles posted on Alta Vista’s social media channels, so their ownership and accuracy are never in question.

Tips to mitigate risk

Francis and Marciano both report their social media channels have been important in engaging potential leads as well as existing customers. Instead of abandoning their online presence, agents and brokers need to put some thought into the type of content they post and where that content comes from. Marciano said she keeps her Twitter feed very general. “Sometimes I’ll link to the articles I have on my blog, but for the most part I’m just putting information out there,” she explained. Occasionally generalized product summaries appear in her posts, though none of the information goes into much detail. She also is mindful of where content originates, and said she researches information to be sure it is “solid and correct advice.”

The social media strategy at Alta Vista is focused on friendliness, education and acting as a strong supporter of its region. “We celebrate many things that go on,” Foster said, “including stuff that happens here at the office, or we’ll celebrate things going on in the city or in the community. Basically, pieces that are of interest.” She said the goal is to encourage dialogue while also remaining positive and informative. Topics that are highly controversial (think: politics) don’t typically make it onto the company’s social media channels, and when multiple viewpoints are present, Foster ensures the agency’s posts remain neutral. Finding the balance can be difficult, but “I still find ways to make people want to have a conversation.” 

Related: Read the article "The Use and Usefulness of Social Media Content' by Roy A. Mura.

Establishing a clear, written social media policy is one way Ganis said agencies and brokerages can rein in online activities and better control content. “It’s just like assigning a cell phone in your agency,” he said. “Set up a separate account for employees in the agency’s name, such as ‘Jane ABCInsurance.’” Employees can then use this sanctioned feed to post on behalf of the agency, but the company still controls the account, the password and all the content. If the employee leaves the agency, the account remains behind. “The agency owns that content,” Ganis said of these company-sponsored accounts. It also is one way he advises companies to protect themselves from rogue employees and those who might want to take their followers to a new agency.

Stead, too, encourages agencies to develop parameters and processes for social media activities. That could mean designating just one person to handle postings or a team of employees to tackle communications together, but careful content management should continue to be a primary concern. “They need to make sure it’s current,” she said. “They also need to look carefully at third-party posts. There has to be some thought put into it—this isn’t just write whatever you want.”

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