Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

Balancing Privacy and Transparency in Social Media

This post originally appeared in our December issue of “Live Report from the Future of Marketing,” our monthly Post-Advertising newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

The art of tightrope walking is one of those feats whose objective is simple but accomplishing it is not: The walker must travel from one end of the tightrope to the other without falling off. All of us at some point in our lives have tried a version of this, usually on the curb of a sidewalk, and have quickly realized that it’s not as easy as it looks. It takes balance and concentration to keep from falling. Make it a high wire and the difficulty increases exponentially: Failure now has much more dire consequences.

Every brand that has created a social media persona walks a tightrope every day: the tightrope of privacy and transparency. Lean too far to the side of privacy and you’re seen as a cold, faceless company that doesn’t care about connecting with your audience. Lean too far to the side of transparency and you risk spilling undisclosed information, giving incorrect or improper advice, or even breaking the law.

In the past, brands didn’t have much opportunity to walk this tightrope. Because there was no Internet access, employees were seen but not often heard. Customers could try if they wished to telephone a human being to ask for help but usually fell victim to phone trees or endless hold music. Remember the adage “A happy customer tells one friend; an angry one tells seven”? Only seven? A brand should be so lucky!

Stepping Off the Platform

In the post-advertising age, the walls maintaining privacy have come tumbling down, and not just for brands. People who would ordinarily be mere acquaintances now have their fingers on the pulse of our lives. They see our daily updates, the places we go, the pictures of our children, our employers’ names and our interests. They read our thoughts, which spill into blogs and Twitter updates. One ne’er-do-well among those 500 “friends” and 1,000 “followers” could wreak havoc with us if they so desired.

As the social paradigm shifts and consumers allow practically carte blanche access to their personal lives, brands are expected to follow suit. Since brands have extended their reach by creating digital personas across social channels, customers perceive those channels as granting 24/7 access to a human being who is ready and willing to listen to their concerns. But for some brands it’s not as easy as planting a community manager in front of a laptop and responding to Twitter mentions and Facebook comments. Brands, mainly those in the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries, are bound by legal regulations concerning public communications. So what’s a brand to do?

Brands on the Line

In most cases, the answer is “Proceed with caution.” Putting your brand reputation (and legal standing) in the hands of a few employees can be a worthwhile yet dangerous undertaking. Most brands create a hierarchical process for approving content on social-media sites like Facebook. Consumers may like to believe that cool video about winemaking was shared spontaneously with 200,000 fans, but in reality, wall posts tend to be approved well in advance of the actual posting. This process may take weeks, a delay that sometimes keeps the content on a page from being timely.

User-generated comments on Facebook pages can be a trickier situation. When you allow your fans access to your wall, they are free to post whatever they want. Of course, they are subject to Facebook-specific guidelines, but alcohol and pharma are notably stricter when it comes to their rules.

Let’s look at an example. Toasted Head (Story client) is a wine brand (and part of the larger Constellation Wine family). Toasted Head creates an active Facebook community and encourages discussion and interaction among fans. There are times, however, when the brand must delete even a small-seeming comment. Any reference, however subtle, to overconsumption, underage drinking or inappropriate sexuality gets the ax. Even any mention of a hangover is a no-no. There is a disclaimer in the information section of the page, but there is always the fear that someone will be outraged by his or her post being deleted. Or, worse, that someone will go on a Facebook commenting rampage and the brand won’t be able to delete it in time.

But these regulations are nothing when compared to the FDA-monitored pharmaceutical industry, in which everything needs approval. And we mean everything. Change a comma placement without approval and you may be in legal trouble. Change a whole sentence and forget about it. Interacting with people via Facebook, where fingers type so rapidly without thinking of consequences, is very difficult for a pharma brand. This industry is one of the last to enter the social-media sphere; slowly it is sticking a toe onto the dangerous tightrope. Social-media applications like PharmaWall improve the situation by allowing administrators to approve, deny or suggest changes for incoming comments. Whether this approval process will disrupt the natural and immediate flow of Facebook has yet to be seen, but it is certainly a positive step for brands to comply with legal restrictions while still directly interacting with the public.

My metaphor for dealing with privacy and transparency has a flaw, however. For a flesh-and-blood tightrope walker, there’s a platform at the other end: a clear destination. The dawn of the post-advertising age has shone a light on new horizons, but social media is an everlasting effort. As we continue to reach audiences through social media, we’ll continue to teeter on the tightrope between privacy and transparency.

How are your brands dealing with privacy and transparency in the digital age?