Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Facebook and Companies - Striking a balance between the Social and the Media aspects

A largely controversial decision made recently by the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) has deemed companies accountable for user-generated comments on their Facebook pages. Posts from ‘fans’ are now considered to be advertisement, which means these should adhere to the industry’s Code of Ethics and the Australian Consumer Law. Because companies have a ‘reasonable degree of control’ over third-party comments, they are expected to vet content that is sexist, racist or factually inaccurate.

The ruling was a result of complaints against third-party comments posted on the Facebook pages of both Diageo’s Smirnoff brand and Fosters’ VB brand. While Diageo’s complaints were not upheld, Fosters were found to breach sections 2.1, 2.4 and 2.5 of the Code due to the sexist, racist and generally offensive content of its page. The fact that Fosters confessed it did not screen or maintain their page was the main reason for the case to be upheld, which demonstrates the heart of the problem.

There seems to be a disconnect between what companies value and what they practice. According to a study by Deloitte, 58 per cent of company's top executives thought corporate reputation risk associated with social media practices should be part of the board room’s agenda; however, only 17 per cent of them had processes in place to actually monitor the data.

Large brands have massive volumes of posts to moderate and the ruling puts the burden on companies to ensure that social media campaigns are executed in a compliant manner, as well as to monitor and moderate the comments. Some companies argue the ruling has turned people's opinions into statements of facts and question whether they could have complied with the law simply by putting a disclaimer on top of their pages stating the posts are merely opinions of third parties.

On the other hand, small businesses worry about being pushed out of social media due to lack of resources to monitor comments. However, the ACCC states that it does take the size of a company into consideration. While large brands are expected to monitor their pages daily and remove non-compliant content within 24 hours, the expectations for smaller players is slightly less rigorous.

From a consumer’s perspective, the ruling is seen by many as an infringement on freedom of speech. It sets a legal precedent that could be applied to comments in other social media like Twitter and even personal blogs in Australia and beyond. Adding to the debate, Facebook Terms of Service states that a person owns all the content they post on Facebook, which would exempt the company from the responsibility. The Facebook Community Standards policy also covers many of the requirements of the AANA Code of Ethics; however, it is unlikely that Facebook would enforce these.

As a result of the ruling, The Communications Council (TCC) has launched a new social media code of conduct, covering best-practice in terms of business integrity, transparency and honesty. To ensure a company’s brand page is compliant with these standards, certain practices should be observed including adequate social media planning, moderation of comments and action within the stipulated timeframe. On that note, it is often best to reply and correct misleading or inaccurate comments than to delete them altogether. This will ensure companies comply with the Code without damaging the transparency and true spirit of social media.

Facebook, regardless of its social nature, is after all another media channel and monitoring and moderating requires proper planning and allocation of resources. Frequently brands treat social media as a cheap form of advertising and fail to establish a true dialogue with their audience. Why create a social media presence if you are not listening, replying, engaging and intervening when required? This is essentially where the real value of social media lies.

For companies like Fosters, the ruling will ensure the observation of a common decency standard. They now have in place ‘house rules’ guidelines on their Facebook page, which is monitored twice daily. By contrast, ethical companies, who have already instigated good moderating practice, things will not change much. Essentially, best practice in social media has now just become part of the industry regulation.

So, how is your company dealing with the new rules in the social media environment?

Adriana H.
Current student in the Master of Marketing program at the University of Sydney

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