Risk comes with social media's rewards

Comms pros love social networks' freedom, but potential for controversy can complicate matters

Comms pros love social networks' freedom, but potential for controversy can complicate matters

From MySpace to Facebook and beyond, social networks' interactive freedoms make them popular and irresistible for communications pros. However, like controversial or offensive content that threatens campaigns in other mediums, such freedoms can translate into risk. For most marketers on social networks, the risk becomes a challenge, as pros really can't avoid the massive marketing potential of the rapidly growing medium.

This complicated environment became apparent recently when two social networking groups, one on Facebook belittling Islam and the other on MySpace bashing the military, caused significant protest.

More than 66,000 members joined a petition threatening to quit Facebook if the anti-Islam group was not deleted. The anti- troops group on MySpace garnered a similar petition. However, many groups, almost identical to those deleted, remain on Facebook, proving how pervasive caustic commentary is on social networking sites.

As companies and their firms embrace the opportunity to interact with the social-networking public, there is the increased risk that it will attract critics concerned over controversial material posted either in those groups or by members of a company's group that has posted offensive material elsewhere.

Frank Shaw, EVP at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, recognizes the risk associated with the interactive medium.

"You have to make the decision that reaching this audience is worth the risk that an ad or communications campaign will be somehow associated with something [you] don't like," he explains.

But he levels it to low risk. "Facebook is a great example, relatively new to a broad-based audience, where you can learn a lot by looking at what has happened previously from a social interactive and marketing standpoint... Even with the examples of anti-Islam sites, it's a relatively minor risk. Not many people say that an ad running on the same page as a group they don't agree with is linked with a group."

In some ways, the potential for controversy found in social networks mirrors that of traditional advertising, where special-interest groups have pressed companies to pull controversial ads from TV shows, for example.

Last month, Virgin Media UK was one of a few companies who pulled business from Facebook when its ads showed up on the British National Party's page. The placement highlighted the fact that they couldn't control what kind of opinions and content their ads might appear next to. However, the company gave PRWeek a tempered statement on the issue, recognizing the importance of working with groups like Facebook.

"We're encouraged to see Facebook and other social networking sites taking steps to implement measures that will help advertisers retain some control over their brand online," the statement read.

Ann Burkart, VP of corporate communications at MySpace, says the risk factor is not an issue for companies looking to work with MySpace. Facebook declined to comment on its standards and practices.

Britt McColl, PR manager at RPA, who worked with MySpace in a PR effort to "give voice" to a Honda brand, acknowledges the risk and outlines the benefits.

She feels that individuals online aren't recklessly pursuing punitive campaigns against companies for controversial groups not under their control, asserting that companies should only truly be concerned with the probity of their own actions.

"If these people already have a perceived idea of the brand, you're not as likely to attract problems with that," she says. "There can be an amazing viral component...but on the flip side, if a company is perceived as doing something wrong, word spreads quickly."

While most are aware of the risks with social networks, they're embracing the freedoms responsible for the expanding communities and its marketing opportunities.

"You can understand a specific audience," says Shaw, "and the ability to identify an audience is a critical first step in having good dialogue in the way it matters."

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