Kiwi brands should embrace online transparency
Recently the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau (AASB) ruled that a brands Facebook page should be considered a marketing communications tool, making the brand responsible for user-generated content on its page.
The ruling came after complaints were made to AASB regarding users posting comments on the Victoria Bitter and Smirnoff brand pages boasting about their excess consumption of the brands' products.
Australian Facebook community managers will now be required
by law to vet user-generated content to ensure it is factually accurate, and doesn't breach advertising standards by including inappropriate or offensive material.
This follows a similar trend that has already played out in the US, where in 2009 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) made similar rulings. The FTC also views blogs and brand pages on other social platforms as advertising and has created guidelines around what is expected when it comes to appropriate comments and disclosures.
Like Australia, brands in the US must remove any content that is factually inaccurate from social media profiles and encourage bloggers to remove any misleading information about the brands' products and services in posts.
The FTC goes a step further and requires 'endorsers', which means anyone (bloggers, celebrities, employees, average joes) providing information, promoting or recommending a product or a service, to disclose any connection they have with the brand.
For example, a PR agency sends a blogger product X for a review. The blogger is expected to disclose the fact that brand X has engaged them and provided product X free of charge somewhere on the post, unless it is obvious via a visible sponsorship arrangement that the blogger has a connection with the brand.
While one might assume it is the blogger's responsibility to disclosure such 'gifts', the FTC guidelines put the emphasis on the brands to prompt the disclosure, and any brand that is not encouraging blogger disclosures could face fines, on top of bad publicity.
So what about New Zealand? The Advertising Standards Authority in New Zealand has publically supported the AASB's decision around user generated comments, but has stopped short of saying New Zealand brand pages are obliged to set up more robust moderation efforts.
When it comes to blogger disclosure and ethics, the ball is in the bloggers court. There are currently no guidelines around what needs to be disclosed and how, and brands are not obliged to encourage any sort of disclosure from bloggers.
Trust is a valuable commodity in social media - for brands and bloggers – and those who embrace an open and up front approach not only enjoy better relationships with their communities, but also safeguard the investment they've made building their community. As Benjamin Franklin once said, 'it takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it'. Brands and bloggers that don't draw a line in the sand when it comes to disclosure risk appearing untrustworthy and shady when their dealings are exposed.
Rather than just leaving it up to the blogger to disclose, brands should be promoting transparency and encouraging appropriate disclosures, and can further protect their online reputation by having an up-to-date social media policy that emphasizes online ethics.
On the issue of user-generated comments, brands can't expect the same liberties as consumers and should moderate pages to ensure all content is appropriate. While brands should never delete negative posts, there are some situations where posts should be removed such as racism, sexism or misleading claims. For example, we have a client that works in the health sector, who has to be extra vigilant to remove un-proven 'miracle cures' posted on its Facebook wall by well-meaning community members.
While I would argue that the social web is not suited to regulation and doesn't really fit under the traditional definition of advertising (or PR and marketing for that matter), it's good to see rulings by the FTC and AASB promoting greater transparency on social platforms. New Zealand organisations can avoid getting in similar situations in the first place by having and up-to-date social media policy, as well as communicating appropriate 'house rules'.
I'm interested to hear others' thoughts. Should New Zealand brands' social media profiles be subject to regulation?