Was it a great cosmic coincidence that the predicted end of the world and Facebook's announcement about gutting privacy rules on Instagram, the popular photo-sharing platform, occurred in the same week? Or were both just galactic examples of bad marketing plans?
If you are reading this right now, it's a safe assumption that the world did not implode on Dec. 21. And, as many tech savvy folks predicted, Facebook - which bought Instagram for a billion dollars last April - already is back pedaling on its announcement that posted content could be used in advertisements without the consent or compensation of the photo poster.
No matter how the virtual dust settles, the controversy should serve as a wake-up call for nonprofits to review their policies to ensure that efforts to share positive images with their communities do not backfire.
"The advice I always tell people is if you send something in email or post it in a social media platform, assume it's public," says Marc Hoit, vice chancellor for information technology and CIO at NC State University. While email is a private exchange, he adds, it's easy to share, tweak and use images in ways the sender never intended - especially with the soaring popularity of smartphones.
Social media sites provide terms and conditions for subscribers, but most users don't fully examine those epic agreements before clicking on the "submit" button. "We actually do for the university, so that's why we only use sanctioned sites," Hoit says. "We take those very seriously and make sure that the rules are consistent with the beliefs of the university."
Hoit views the Instagram kerfuffle with a bit of cynicism, recalling previous examples of social media providers announcing major policy changes only to relent after massive publicity is generated about upset subscribers. The pattern affords the provider an image of benevolence in recognizing the concerns of its clients, while still implementing policy changes that fit their intended business model.
In the past, Hoit says, "Facebook changes its terms radically, then backs off maybe 10 percent. Most of the time, they don't go back as far as people think."
There is plenty of evidence showing how photos can be manipulated - sometimes in intentionally humorous ways, such as a cheerful Santa steering what appears to be an Institute for Nonprofits-sponsored sleigh. An especially egregious example came to light this year when the smiling image of slain UNC student leader Eve Carson was discovered promoting study-abroad services on a billboard in India. The advertisement was later removed and apologies issued when the company learned about the circumstances, but the shock, outrage and media condemnation remain.
A photo release form is recommended for all nonprofits that use "real people" instead of stock art in their communications - especially for images that show an identifiable client, student or minor child. NC State uses a standard form for such purposes and others can be found online.
The N.C. Center for Nonprofits provides a sample permission form for its members. "We encourage nonprofits to receive permission to use photos of any kind before using them in their materials," says Paula Jones, director of technology.
While some prominent users of Instagram have suspended their accounts - notably, National Geographic - others, like Martha Sotelo, marketing manager of Easter Seals North Texas, are not worried about sticking with a service that has provided easy and effective outreach.
"Our content strategy for Facebook and Twitter consists of sharing more streamlined, agency-focused content," says Sotelo. "Whereas on Instagram, we will post an irreverent picture such as the Texas-sized art piece we spotted at the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Center."
Sotelo adds that her agency, which falls under strict HIPPA guidelines because it provides health services, continually monitors privacy policies of the services it uses.
"The (Instagram) policy change could cause us to ‘go dark' and stop using the application in order to not jeopardize our clients' privacy," says Sotelo, who has been investigating other photo applications, just in case. "Also, we want to be mindful of our employees' privacy who are also featured in our pictures."
NC State's Hoit believes that users of Instagram and other social media platforms who are similarly judicious should have few concerns.
"If you work to maintain a positive image, just as NC State works diligently to maintains its brand, it shouldn't be a great concern," Hoit says. "Bottom line, whether it's a work or personal account, don't put anything out there that you could be embarrassed about."
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