RCM Staff Report You see them on all your favorite Web sites: Those useful buttons that can, with a click of your mouse, take you to a related site of interest. In the case of a hotel chain, you can usually hyperlink from one hotel to another within the chain as easily as you can skip a stone over water. Convention and visitors bureaus and chambers of commerce also usually include hyperlinks to their members' Web sites, so you can go straight from the CVB site to a local florist or AV company site. Wouldn't it be great to include some hyperlinks on your organization's Web site as well?

Sure it would. You just need to exercise some legal protection, in case what seemed to be a good link turns out to be a bad one. Jonathan T. Howe, senior partner with Howe & Hutton, Ltd., in Chicago, addressed this topic at a previous RCMA Conference and Exposition. Here's what he had to say.

Have an Agreement There are lots of sites to which you may want to link your organization's or meeting's Web site. How about a link to all the area churches under your organization's umbrella? Or to local childcare providers in the area of your annual meeting? Or to area sights and attractions attendees might want to check out while they're in town for the meeting? These are just a few types of hyperlinks that can enrich your Web site.

The first thing, Howe said, is to perform some due diligence. Go to the site you want to hyperlink to and make sure that it is something that will not be offensive to your constituents.

Of course, Web sites can change at cyberspeed, so you also should include a disclaimer on your Web site saying that you assume no responsibility for what any linked sites have on their site, to serve as a caveat emptor, or buyer beware, for the viewer. Make it clear that you are including the hyperlink merely to help facilitate the viewer in getting somewhere else.

"You are not responsible for what's on their site; you are not recommending them, and you are not advising not to use them," said Howe. "You are merely putting the link on your site as a convenience. Put a big disclaimer there saying so." Howe likened it to a statement in the meeting's program that says the organization is not responsible for what a speaker says at a session.

Howe told RCMA attendees that it is vital to have a written agreement between you and the organization you are hyperlinking to. In addition to a disclaimer, the agreement should provide indemnification for you in the event of any liability that may arise out of the hyperlink.

You want to make sure that they have the affirmative obligation to defend you in the event of any claim that is made, because that gives you first dollar coverage, Howe said. It may sound extreme, but situations have arisen that, even when organizations eventually win their defense for including or promoting something that turns out not to be all it was supposed to be, they still had to spend millions of dollars in the defense of their position.

"You want to have indemnification from anybody you reference off of your site. You want to have indemnification from anybody that you are using as a hyperlink. You want indemnification from anybody who uses your site for communications such as a bulletin board or a chat room," Howe said. "Part and parcel of the requirement for their participation is that they will hold you harmless and that you will not be held responsible for anything they put up on the bulletin board, or on their Web site."

Also, decide if you want to limit the period of time the link is active. If your convention is in July, you may want to remove the link at the end of the conference. Make sure that the time limit is clearly specified in the written agreement, said Howe.

Insurance and Other Issues Insurance companies are finally beginning to realize that there is a whole new marketplace out there that deals with electronic communication. So there are policies that can protect you overall. You also may want to be named as co-insured on the insurance policies of those organizations you hyperlink to. If you do, says Howe, make sure that the rider or co-insurance agreement includes an affirmative obligation on the part of the carrier to notify you should the insurance lapse somewhere along the way, or no longer be in effect.

As a different kind of insurance, also make sure that you have very clear and direct policies in place that dictate how e-mail can be used within your offices, both for internal and external communication. Also set parameters regarding your Web site and use of the Internet by your organization's employees and members.

"Once that e-mail is sent, you can never get it back," said Howe. "It is out there in media-land forever, and clever people can always find it and bring it back to haunt you. You need to have an ongoing risk management procedure in place to evaluate, on a continuing basis, what you are doing." Challenge your own program to see if it is truly secure and to make sure no one is taking unfair advantage or misusing the information on your site.

"Conduct a legal audit of what you are doing to make sure that you have contracts in place," said Howe. Whether you are dealing with a hotel, a destination management company, or a babysitting service, you're dealing with people who will have access to your attendees, and you need to have a written agreement that sets forth your policies and procedures.

And make sure that any time you put somebody's material on your Web site, you have permission to do so, he emphasized. Just because speakers give you the right to audiotape, videotape, and use photos of their materials in your promotional efforts, don't think you automatically can use things on your Web site as well. You may have a copyright infringement issue if you do, Howe warned. "I'll never forget one convention we had in San Francisco. We had taken an artist rendering of a horizon line. One owner of the buildings in the rendering sent a letter objecting to our using the image of his building in our promotional materials. So I wrote back and said, `Fine, we'll just take it out of the skyline.' They ended up giving us permission." While that was a rather extreme case, Howe said, make sure you have permission to use any images or content from your meeting's headquarters hotel, your speakers, or whomever else, before using them on your Web site or in other promotional materials.

Keep in mind that just as each meeting is unique, so is each hyperlink agreement. For example, you may want to use hyperlinks to generate some income for your organization in some circumstances. But if you want the site you hyperlink to compensate you for the service, perhaps giving your organization a simple fee for the number of hits that come about as a result of the hyperlink, make sure it's spelled out in the written agreement.