How much can you control your online risk anyway?

This week, we’ve seen yet another ‘social media kerfuffle’ from Qantas (a ‘frequent flyer’ in this space), with a young boy seeing a pornographic image from a Facebook user’s post that occurred overnight. This joins the classic #QantasLuxury escapade, the Coles ‘it’s a crime not to buy’ tweet, and more recent examples like the Burger King social media hijack. The list will no doubt continue, regardless of how vigilant brands can be.

Immediately we’ve seen the standard response of shock and horror, with media outlets and the public dismayed to find that Qantas had ‘allowed’ such a thing to happen. Unfortunately (for Qantas’ PR team), the brand’s social media accounts are only monitored during business hours – something that is fairly standard practice for mid-size brands, but most large brands (for example Telstra) now provide 24×7 coverage. Indeed, many large brands provide business hours reply support, but provide out-of-hours monitoring services to ensure that messages posted to the Page can be actioned if required (whether that involves deleting or calling the PR manager of the brand) outside these times.

But brands have only so much control over what they can manage online. I work in social media risk management, and the risks are diverse in nature and increasing in size as social media grows and becomes more of a part of the everyday Australian’s life. As has been noted previously, the ACCC has issued guidance after the Smirnoff/VB complaint that brands are seen to be liable for content posted to their social media accounts – and that any content should be held to the same standard as advertising material promoted by the brand. Now whether this should be the case is another article all together. Keep an eye out on IAB Australia’s guidelines page, as they’re about to release some further guidance from an industry perspective*.

But how much can you realistically control? Much in the same way that simply having a social media policy is no longer seen as ‘managing employee risk’, with brands now increasingly working to educate employees about the content and nature of such policies (such as through great videos like this one).

Any time something goes wrong, the ambulance chasers are out, immediately talking about how ‘brand x’ could’ve or should’ve done it better. Now, I think that Qantas should have 24×7 coverage (they’re a pretty damn big brand after all…) but how much could this have been avoided?

I don’t have the details of the situation and how it unfolded (from what I understand this wasn’t the case with the Qantas post), but it’s entirely plausible for a brand to experience the following:

  1. User posts on brand’s timeline/wall a nice post, comment or picture,
  2. brand sees post (maybe even ‘Likes’ it), doesn’t remove it because there’s nothing wrong with it,
  3. (insert small to medium time delay),
  4. user changes their name and/or profile picture to something inappropriate or unsavoury, then
  5. other users visiting the brand’s page, see the updated profile picture and name rather than the one originally seen by the brand’s social media team.


This wouldn’t be hard to do at all for the average user. And is totally out of the brand’s control. It’s impractical to expect a brand to review every historic post every day (or hour!) to make sure users haven’t changed their name or picture to something inappropriate. Indeed, the ability to edit Facebook comments might make this even easier to do in an overt manner.

Given the competitive nature of many brands’ industries (immediately to mind come politics, FMCG, retail or group buying), this could even be done by a competitor or disgruntled consumer wanting to stir up negative press without much difficulty at all.

Unfortunately, consumers don’t see this side of social media management. Managing risks is complex, and not all risks can be mitigated within technology, time or budgetary constraints. All they see is an incompetent brand.

What’s the solution? Sadly, there isn’t a simple answer. But brands need to consider what the consumer’s expectations will be: nobody will expect a local café to have 24×7 coverage on Facebook, but will they for your brand? What kind of response time is expected? What kind of content is seen as ‘appropriate’ (by the brand and the consumer)? Additionally, brands need to be able to respond when things happen that are out of their control – because no matter how hard we try to minimise risk, s**t happens. In this case, I think Qantas has acted perfectly appropriately, deleting the post as soon as they could (ie. when the team got back online) and apologising for any harm caused.


* Disclosure: the author’s company, Dialogue Consulting, is one of the authors and supporters of the IAB’s forthcoming guidelines on comment moderation.

Hugh Stephens
BY Hugh Stephens ON 11 July 2013
Hugh Stephens isn’t particularly relevant, Tweets @hughstephens and sometimes writes his thoughts about social media and online engagement on his blog.