Management Minute: 5 Social Media Risks for Accountants

social media

It’s not unusual for today’s financial professional — and accounting firms as a whole — to treat social media as a basic tool in the array of communication, networking and marketing strategies.

But as the volume of online data grows and as information shuttles instantaneously across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn, it’s incumbent upon accounting professionals to take precautions against inherent social media risks with regard to security.

The consulting firm Protiviti dubbed 2014 “the year of the data breach,” and surveys show that the risks of technology, particularly the use of social media to convey corporate messaging, aren't enough of a concern in the industry yet. As professionals who deal with sensitive public and private financial information, accounting professionals more than ever should be aware of the uncertain ground upon which we tread for our clients and the industry.

Here are five suggestions to keep in mind:

1. Avoid misrepresentation.

If you work with an accounting or financial services firm, a poorly phrased or timed tweet may end up misrepresenting your employer. The repercussions for individual and self-employed CPAs can be more profound and immediate, doing damage to hard-won reputations. Such a slip-up may happen unconsciously by posting un-vetted advice on behalf of the firm or using language that may be considered offensive.

2. Be aware of the broader implications of mishandling sensitive information.

A seemingly minor offense involving client information could have implications beyond your office and even raise an issue with IRS Circular 230 regulations or the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. It’s not uncommon for financial professionals to use social media to stay abreast of industry trends, financial reporting, advertising and marketing. Sometimes this means touting the positive effects of one’s work. But be aware not to divulge any secure information, such as the amount of money saved on taxes, specific assets, or even a client’s name without formal permission. A seemingly innocuous tweet may get you in trouble with the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility, and in the world of investments, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has set regulations regarding the posting of financial data on social media sites.

3. Apply special caution with mobile devices.

As mobile devices become ubiquitous, hacking has become a growing concern. Do you ever download or import client data and information to the same smartphone or tablet you use to access social media via apps? The security of these apps can be compromised as well as confidential data, such as passwords, on these devices. Wi-Fi in public venues can also provide a portal for hackers to steal information. The bottom line: Extreme care should be taken before downloading sensitive client data and information in any “cloud” format. When in doubt, consult with your information technology department security pros. The last thing you want is a repeat of the LinkedIn hack of 2012.

4. Be mindful of your time management.

Given that social media platforms are largely designed to connect people, you run the risk of getting pulled into multiple “conversations” daily. The hankering you may feel to respond to comments, posts or content on social media sites may hamper your real-time productivity and ability to meet deadlines, so avoid the temptation to slow yourself down.

5. Carefully cultivate your personal social media presence.

A survey revealed that 43 percent of employers viewed job candidates’ social media profiles before making a hiring decision. Keep in mind that you have control over your online social media presentation, and also have the choice of how public your presence is. Whether it’s your personal Facebook page or LinkedIn profile, consider your profile next time you’re seeking a new accounting or finance industry job.

Don’t let social media risks hold you back. Rather, take these words of caution to become aware. Empower yourself to take the necessary precautions to protect the security of your clients and preserve the integrity of your firm, and you’ll maximize the benefits of these social media platforms.

Have you received training on social media risks or experienced problems as a result of using these platforms? Feel free to share what you’ve learned in the comments.