Think before you tweet – the perils of social media for the accountancy profession

1 April 2019

Social media has introduced to professionals a global platform for promoting services to an ever-growing audience in order to network and reach out to new clients. It is increasingly a key focus of marketing strategy. Not only this but it is a space within which professionals can share and acquire knowledge.

For accountants, social media can be hugely beneficial when it comes to showcasing your expertise and growing your accountancy career and/or practice. However, the professional obligations dictated by your regulator’s codes of ethics should always be at the forefront of your mind when using the same.

For example, in Part A of The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) Code of Ethics, members are informed that in “marketing and promoting themselves and their work, professional accountants shall not bring the profession into disrepute” (section 150.2). The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants and The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy have similar provisions in their respective codes.

We have outlined below our tips on best practice to help ensure regulatory compliance online.

Social media best practice:

Think before you tweet

It can take a matter of seconds to post something online which could have grave consequences (including an allegation of misconduct by your regulator). Information can easily be taken out of context and even if removed can be circulated forevermore if, for example, someone has speedily taken a screenshot. Be mindful of your language and check your content before you post; a quick internet search can very easily identify the author of offensive or negative content as an accountancy professional. The risk of bringing the profession into disrepute and a breach of the Code of Ethics then follows.

 

Connect with Caution 

Connecting with previous and current clients via social media is a fantastic way to promote an on-going relationship and to secure repeat business in the future; this is not prohibited by the regulators. It goes without saying, however, that potentially commercially sensitive or personal information regarding that client should never be shared without their prior, informed, and explicit consent.    

 

Check your company’s social media policy

As an employee you should check what is expected of you in accordance with such policies; compliance with your company’s policy will most likely ensure regulatory compliance. As a company you should regularly review your social media policies to ensure they appropriately manage current and emerging risks associated with this ever-changing platform.  

 

Anonymity does not mean security

Content can still be tracked back to your IP address.

 

Check third-party posting ­­

If you outsource your social media posting to a third party make sure you closely monitor their output and, in turn, protect your reputation.

 

Be mindful of confidentiality ­

Posting about successes and achievements obtained in your professional work is clearly a great marketing tool; however, do not lose sight of the importance of protecting client confidentiality when doing so. There are also less obvious confidentiality risks to using social media to be aware of. For example, some types of social media advertise the fact that you are in a particular location at a particular time (perhaps via a “geotagged” status update), which could result in an accountant inadvertently revealing confidential information when their location is linked to their online content.     

 

Don’t exaggerate your credentials

Making exaggerated claims about the services you provide and your qualifications is in breach of codes like the ICAEW Code of Ethics.

 

Private behaviour is not necessarily private

Whilst different forms of social media are often viewed as serving different purposes (LinkedIn for professional commentary and Facebook for personal) recent case law has made clear that acting with ‘integrity’ (as required by the accountancy regulatory codes) is a useful shorthand to express the higher standards society expects from professional persons and which the professions expect from their own members. This very much blurs the boundary between personal and private. Content and comments you post online in a private capacity can easily become public. Maintaining professionalism in your private life (as conveyed online) will help protect your online profile and protect against any allegation that you lack integrity.

 

In summary, social media is a useful tool which brings with it numerous opportunities to expand not only an accountant’s/accountancy firm’s business but also the underlying knowledge driving that business. With the opportunities, however, comes the risks; a cautious approach to managing such risks can protect against the dangers of social media emerging and, in turn, significantly outweighing the many benefits available.

This blog is part of the 'Think before you tweet' series outlining social media guidance for regulated professionals. 

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We welcome views and opinions about the issues raised in this blog. Should you require specific advice in relation to personal circumstances, please use the form on the contact page.

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