The need for social media guidelines

Businesses are stuck. Everyone has read about the benefits of using social media but at the same time it seems that every week brings a new social media fail.

There was the livestock business with the “degrading” Facebook ad, Bankwest’s Facebook Twitter impersonator or the new case today of underwear business Bestie getting in trouble for its Facebook campaign for a “Selfie with your Bestie”.

No wonder many businesses are choosing to sit on their hands and not get involved in the world of social media at all.

The problem is that the laws on social media in Australia are not very clear.

Take Facebook; in August this year the Advertising Standards Bureau found that Smirnoff Vodka’s Facebook page was an advertisement and that Smirnoff was responsible for monitoring public comments on the page.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chimed in and said Facebook comments which were false and misleading should be removed within 24 hours by big business.

All of a sudden those small businesses who have got on board the social media revolution and set up a Facebook page face constant monitoring of these pages.

Since then the ACCC has said it will provide more leeway for small business but there’s no clear guidance on this subject and some businesses are wondering whether, from a legal point of view, it is better not to monitor Facebook comments at all.

Enter New Zealand.

The Advertising Standards Authority over there, which is the equivalent of our ASB, issued a short guidance note this week which creates the presumption that user generated content on Facebook will not be treated as advertising.

There’s some “preliminary areas of enquiry” set out to help in assessing this which basically look at whether a business “solicited” user generated content – for example via an invitation to enter a competition.

It’s a short note and sets out the legal position in New Zealand in a clear and straightforward way.

Why can’t Australia have something similar?

In the same note, New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Authority warns of the dangers of businesses retweeting customer tweets in case they are misleading.

In New Zealand, people who are paid to tweet support for a product or service must now include the #ad hashtag to make the endorsement obvious.

In Australia there is no such requirement. This led to outcry when Media Watch revealed celebrities were being paid by South Australian tourism to tweet about Kangaroo Island.

Even those trailblazers in New Zealand are still following behind the United States, which in 2010 updated the Federal Trade Commission’s 1980 guidelines to add examples relating to online endorsements via blogs and social media platforms like Twitter.

“If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed,” the FTC said.

It’s 2012 now, a whole two years later, and given that internet years are like dog years and move a lot more quickly, it’s about time there was some clear guidance in Australia on the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.

Small businesses can’t afford to be left behind in using social media but the reluctance of many to get involved because of the ongoing uncertainty is understandable.

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