With a spate of recent cases where fans’ inappropriate comments on brands’ Facebook pages have upset the public, debate has arisen on who is responsible. Here’s what’s happened, what’s changed, and how it affects your company’s social media interaction.

BY EDWINA STORIE

Facebook is notorious for making changes to its layout and functionality without warning, causing enormous trouble for brands which use it for marketing. This, along with the platform’s young age, its public accessibility, and the trial-and-error methods used as we all figure out how to connect with clients and consumers through the unruly web, has contributed to some major court cases and marketing decisions in the last few months.
Brands such as Target, Smirnoff Vodka, VB and Channel Seven have all reaped the wrath of their fans’ comments. So much so that the issue of whose responsibility the comments are – the users’ or the brands’ – have been so controversial that major decisions on business liability have been made by the Advertising Standards Bureau and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. These have implications for all Facebook Fan Page users, so if you’re a business who has a Facebook profile, read on.

where it started

Earlier this year, VB posed the question ‘Other than VB, what essentials are required on Australia Day?’ on its Facebook wall to create conversation and brand engagement – pretty textbook stuff. The answers that followed however unleashed a debate of racial hatred and sexist slurs.
In another case the Smirnoff Facebook page was also accused by offended followers of hosting sexist, racist and discriminatory comments from fans, along with obscene language and remarks advocating binge drinking.
More outrage arose from fan comments regarding a remark of a mother’s dissatisfaction with Target’s children’s range made on a Friday night which was not responded to until Monday morning. With no word from Target, it gained traction and more than 50,000 likes over the weekend, and when the brand did respond, it noted that due to a word in the comment being flagged by Facebook as inappropriate, they were unaware of the post until brought to their attention. But the negative publicity had already been made.
These cases raise the issue of the impact of user comments, who is liable for them, and how much time should be taken to respond to them. The social network is a public forum, so can it be regulated? Furthermore, does this mean businesses will need to constantly monitor their page? Many small businesses can’t afford an online community manager, let alone one who’s on call 24/7.

where the big guys stepped in

In response to the Smirnoff and VB cases, The Advertising Standards Bureau ruled that “the Facebook site of an advertiser is a marketing communication tool over which the advertiser has a reasonable degree of control and could be considered to draw the attention of a segment of the public to a product in a manner calculated to promote or oppose directly or indirectly that product.”
It ruled that brands are responsible for policing comments on the public Facebook page, because the page becomes a marketing communication tool and extension of advertising.
Furthermore, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission ruled that large companies should remove offensive material within 24 hours or be fined.

how this affects you

All Australian businesses using social networking sites must consider how much the site will be moderated. Over-moderation can border on censorship while no moderation leaves the brand at risk of being liable for offensive remarks.
Facebook Terms of Service state that a person owns all content they post on Facebook, meaning, the comments on your fan page don’t belong to you. However, it also says that pages run by an organisation must comply with the Facebook Community Standards Policy, meaning some kind of moderation is required of the posts to ensure the content on your site is within these guidelines. These rules include comments that are of “hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incite violence; or contain nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence”.
Online community managers generally believe negative comments balance the conversation and should be responded to publically rather than deleted, while offensive comments should be dealt with according to brand values and general standards of public etiquette.
There are functions on your Facebook page that can address this. If you are worried about offensive comments causing damage before you can address them, go into the Edit Page dropdown bar at the top of your Facebook fan page when logged in, and select Manage Edit Permissions to adapt the page accordingly.
While hopefully the business events industry isn’t one that will experience too much negative client feedback or social media trolls, these recent decisions will mark the future of social media marketing.