By Hugh Hitchcock, Director and Media Law Expert, Douglas-Jones Mercer (DJM) Solicitors

Last month Liverpool footballer Mario Balotelli has publically apologised following a post on social media which appeared to contain anti-Semitic and racist references. Subsequently there have been calls for the Football Association (FA) to investigate and the player could be on the receiving end of a hefty punishment.

As the number of social media users continues to rise – with over r[nul=http://www.socialmediatoday.com/content/uk-social-media-statistics-2014]46 million[/nurl] active UK Facebook and Twitter accounts today – alongside personal users, increasingly businesses are signing up to connect with these growing audiences. Whilst this can have positive outcomes for brand recognition, customer service and self-promotion, it can also be a potential minefield for firms with limited social media know-how.

Many businesses, such as Vodafone, have already experienced the pitfalls social media can present. The mobile giant’s followers would have been shocked to see an obscene tweet in their stream from the brand's official account. The company immediately received hundreds of complaints and the media picked it up. Vodafone quickly had a crisis to manage.

The initial assumption was that the brand's account got hacked, but it turns out that the tweet was sent out by one of its own staff. Whatever Vodafone's checks are regarding account access, they weren't enough, but at least it was transparent about what happened. The employee was later suspended.

And it’s not just a case of causing offence. The Communications Act and Defamation Act are just two of the legal regulations that can be breached by improper behaviour on or following on from social media activity, and it does not take much for a business to step over the line.

Internet trolls could also now potentially face up to two years in jail under new laws, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has said, quadrupling the current maximum six-month term.

To avoid legal action, businesses of all sizes must be wary that everything they share on social media is classed as published, and published statements can be used as evidence in court. Everything published online leaves a footprint that cannot easily be erased. Even if posts are deleted, there will continue to be traces of them in the digital sphere. Businesses should be extremely wary of making statements online they may later want to retract.

Communicating on social media channels is also very different to talking in public, despite how conversational online interaction can feel. Online, it is much easier for posts to be taken out of context where tone and body language are absent.

Furthermore, ‘owning the moment’, or ‘piggy backing’ trending topics, to increase the likelihood of tweets being noticed, can be a great way of attracting new interest. However, firms should be careful which moments they choose.

When the Atlantic hurricane season struck the East Coast of America in 2012, the clothing company Gap was criticised for sending this rather insensitive tweet: “All impacted by #Sandy, stay safe! We’ll be doing lots of Gap.com shopping today. How about you?” This attracted huge criticism, both on and offline, and represents a lesson to all. If companies wish to ‘own the moment’ they should choose which moment and how, very carefully.

Finally, by launching social media platforms, you are exposing your firm to public feedback and criticism. Thankfully, the case of Brenda Leyland is not the norm but it serves to underline the dangers relating to misuse of social media.

However, effective and engaging use of social media opens up channels which can connect firms more closely with potential and current customers. The benefits of doing so are clear to see, but businesses must take care to invest in training to ensure all members of staff who manage feeds are social media savvy. After all, no company wants to build its follower-count for the wrong reasons.